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April 1, 1999

4 Min Read
Market Focus:  Automotive products

Surprise. Cost-cutting continues in the automotive market. With all the changes the Big Three and other automakers have seen in the last year, one thing remains constant: the automaker’s desire to save money in this competitive market. IMM polled market analysts to find out where they see the market going.


If you are an automotive supplier and unfamiliar with the use of the word “modularization,” start practicing. John Zessin, commercial director for North America, Dow Automotive, says the concept is not just a buzzword. Over the last two years, Zessin says, automakers have been asking their Tier One suppliers to provide fully assembled modules that can be dropped into a vehicle. This includes things like an instrument panel, which is supplied as a fully assembled unit that includes the radio, electronics, and other supporting hardware. “They’re assembling a module, not the 18 parts that go into the module,” Zessin says. “In the process, the Tier One gets greater content, say $200 instead of $20.”

For the Tier One, the trick is getting the most out of that $200. Developing partnerships with suppliers is one solution, he says. The other is careful outsourcing. “Managing the supply chain has become an important job for the Tier Ones,” he says.

So what do you do if you’re a Tier Two or Tier Three molder? Zessin thinks specialization and a clear understanding of your capabilities are key. “They have to say, ‘This is our niche. This is what we are going to do better than anyone,’” he says. He thinks Tier Ones are willing to pay for the quality a focused supplier can give. Part of that focus may include nonmolding operations, such as assembly and decorating.

The modules Zessin has seen include instrument panels, doors, seating systems, overhead systems, fuel systems, and front end systems. Ultimately, he thinks modularization is not a passing trend. It is here to stay.

Emissions Standards

Over at Shell Chemicals the focus is on fuel systems, where changes in regulations mean changes in how automakers store and deliver fuel. Paul Sykes is the market manager for automotive in the Americas; Yann Cramer is market manager for automotive in Europe and Asia. They point out that over the next five to six years, in Europe and the U.S., new regulations will be phased in governing hydrocarbon emissions from cars.

Current limits allow 2g/day of hydrocarbons emissions from the total vehicle. By 2004 in California, that will decrease to .5g/day. “These regulations will push manufacturers of fuel systems to come up with tighter components,” says Sykes. “Today’s technology allows the industry to meet the 2g/day limit, but it will have difficulty meeting the lower .5g/day standard.”

One area of concern is the fuel tank, which if not properly sealed can leak hydrocarbons. Over the last few years, fuel tanks have evolved from all-metal construction to plastic, mainly via blowmolding. But Cramer and Sykes say the next step may be to injection mold tanks in halves and weld them together. This, they say, provides better wall thickness control and the opportunity to integrally mold components, instead of attaching them in a later process.

For molders looking to make plastic tanks, Sykes recommends boning up on systems integration and creative design: “With the concerns that will develop over reducing hydrocarbon leaks, sealing and welding technology will be critical. Also, consider designs that integrate as many parts as possible to eliminate potential leaks.”


Now that airbags in the front of the car have established themselves, carmakers are looking at other regions of the vehicle for safety upgrades. Chad Waldschmidt, market development manager for Hivalloy resins at Montell Polyolefins, says side-impact safety represents the next step. The National Highway Transportation & Safety Administration (NHTSA) is issuing new guidelines governing trim panels and headliners. The NHTSA would like to see such components be more “head friendly” and less injurious. “To a molder it means the game has changed when it comes to upper trim material,” he says, pointing out that he expects a migration to designs and materials that can better absorb impact. Such materials might include olefin-based resins, as well as PPO and ABS.

Waldschmidt foresees airbags in a variety of locations: headliners above the window, the back of the front seat, the side door, and along the pillar post between the front and back seats. For injection molded plastic parts in these applications, specs will be tight (as they are now) and dimensions critical to airbag operation.

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