Market Snapshot: Automotive underhood

It’s not a pretty picture in Detroit or even down South, but aftermarket components could make a small dent in a struggling industry.

As markets go, automotive is probably at its lowest point ever, a fact reflected in the demise of a number of large automotive molders such as Plastech Engineered Products, Blackhawk Automotive Plastics, Cadence Innovation, and Blue Water Automotive Systems. U.S. auto sales fell dramatically in 2008, making it one of the industry’s worst years. Sales of cars and light trucks for December 2008 fell 36% to 896,124 vehicles, according to Autodata Corp., a Woodcliff Lake, NJ research firm. For the full year, U.S. auto sales declined 18% to 13.24 million vehicles, the lowest total since 1992, Autodata said. No company escaped the pain – not even foreign domestics such as Toyota, which saw its first drop in sales in 70 years.

Ticona's Fortron PPS provides resistance to coolant chemicals in engine cooling system components like this Airtex water pump.

A 2006 report from The Freedonia Group (Cleveland, OH) projected injection molded plastics demand for engine and mechanical motor vehicle applications to grow 1.9% per year to 435 million lb in 2010, accounting for 26% of the total motor vehicle market. Although opportunities for underhood applications appear to remain good due to the performance requirements of those components plus the continued conversion from metal, the numbers from 2006 appear to be optimistic given proposed reductions in production, particularly among the Detroit Three.

For suppliers of underhood components, the aftermarket might be a good bet. “People are keeping their cars longer in this economy and doing more repairs,” says Dennis Virag, president of The Automotive Consulting Group Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI).

Big opportunities to lighten up

Reducing weight and costs in any automotive application is key when looking toward the industry’s future. Also, as vehicles get smaller and the engine compartment shrinks, parts have to be designed to accommodate a smaller area. That means more creative design, combining multiple components into a single unit, and increasing temperature tolerances.

Freedonia notes that resin producers have continued to extend the temperature performance of many of their engineering grades used in underhood applications, including air-intake manifolds, valve covers, pulleys, water pumps, air cleaners, fuel valves, engine and transmission covers, oil pans, fuel level devices, spark plug extenders, brush holders, water pump impellers, battery trays, and air deflectors.

Engine and mechanical applications include all of the systems linked to the engine, such as the complete fuel, emissions, cooling, and engine-related electrical systems (excluding batteries); the complete drivetrain, including the transmission, transfer case (if used), and axle assemblies; the braking system; and other mechanical and chassis-related systems. As such, the engine and mechanical category is the largest in terms of both percentage of vehicle weight and total vehicle cost, says the Freedonia Group.
The report also notes that research is progressing on the use of nanocomposite nylon, which provides antistatic properties and greater barrier function in applications such as fuel lines and components.

Smaller and greener

The leading hope for a new era of vehicles lies in eco-friendly cars and light trucks. If the Detroit Three are forced by Congress as a condition of receiving federal bailout money to focus their attention on green vehicles, and they can make these vehicles affordable (both to buy and to operate) and in designs that turn consumers’ heads, that might provide new opportunities for OEMs and their suppliers.

In November, DSM Engineering Plastics (Evansville, IN) announced the expansion of its longstanding partnership with French Tier One automotive supplier Valeo SA to develop technologies for reducing the environmental impact from vehicles. Valeo’s Engine Management Systems Div. is using Arnite PBT and PBT/PET resins from DSM in several engine systems: electronic throttle control (ETC), ignition systems, and exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), the latter of which helps reduce pollutants from diesel engines and conserves fuel in gasoline engines.

Smaller engine compartments, the natural result of smaller cars, means underhood components will be particularly sensitive to heat. “One thing we see different between Europe and the U.S. is that in Europe, because of part density in the engine compartment of smaller vehicles, the temperatures are higher since there is less air flow,” says Ed Hallahan, marketing manager for Ticona Engineering Polymers’ (Florence, KY) Fortran PPS and Vectra LCP. “Underhood temperatures tend to be lower in the U.S., where vehicles are larger and have more room in the engine compartment. That obviously will change if the U.S. moves toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

More metal gone

Ticona’s Fortron PPS is found in many high-heat automotive underhood applications, where resistance to the corrosiveness of gas, diesel, and ethanol/methanol are critical to fuel system components. Fortron also provides excellent tensile strength and flex and impact modulus, says Hallahan. But the big opportunity lies in weight savings of up to 70% over metal components.

Metal replacement continues to be a major focus for DSM as well. The company’s Stanyl high-modulus grades extend the scope for metal replacement at temperatures up to 200°C (392°F). Applications such as single-piece chain tensioner guides can be made with significant system cost reductions compared to two-piece systems. And gears molded from Stanyl transmit higher torque at smaller sizes, allowing for replacement of metal gears or the redesign of component packages to reduce overall costs. [email protected]


Power train trends

From a marketing standpoint, there are always opportunities in the face of change. See right for some of the trends and opportunities that Ticona’s marketing manager Ed Hallahan sees for underhood applications.

Focus on recyclability

Despite the chaos the industry experienced in the fourth quarter, the fundamental trends remain in place, says Hallahan. “Maybe things will play out stronger one way or another, but fundamentally it’s sound,” he comments. “President Obama will be pushing fuel efficiency, tighter CAFÉ restrictions, etc., but he doesn’t want to push the auto companies over the edge. Once things stabilize, he’ll get back to those key initiatives. But any time there’s disruption or change, it’s an opportunity.”

Plastics vs. metals for underhood applications

Thanks to its chemical resistance to gas, diesel, and ethanol/methanol, Ticona’s Fortron PPS was chosen for the Ford Taurus fuel-injection rail.

This section for a car heat exchanger unit uses Fortron PPS from Ticona because of its resistance to water/glycol mixture to 150°C, and ability to withstand long-life coolants.

When redesigning parts under the hood for plastics, early involvement with the customer in product development, engineering, and design are critical, says Ticona’s Steve Cushard. Plastics have a significant advantage over metals in many applications:

• Stylish, contemporary design
• Optimum balance of functionality, performance, aesthetics, and cost
• Reduction in the number of metal parts to a single structural molded part, resulting in better quality control
• Elimination of costly assembly operations through incorporation of molded-in features such as snapfits, card guides, bosses, ribs, and hinges, which allow one part to do the job of many
• Reduced overall system costs, shipping costs, and weight

Three key questions need to be asked:
1. Do any parts have to move relative to one another?
2. Do any of the parts have to be removed from one another?
3. Do any parts need to be removed by the user?

If the answer is no to any one of these questions, then consolidation of that individual part is possible, Ticona contends.

Cushard says that great change is ahead. “It won’t be business as usual as companies seek to lower costs, and that presents opportunities to companies that take advantage of that,” he says. “We want to support those companies. Things will change with the downsizing of the automotive industry, and there will be some shakeout.”

The one automotive investment: Propulsion

“The interesting thing of this downturn is how universally it is affecting all parts of the world and all companies in the automotive industry. Also, the cash flow tribulations of Chrysler particularly have shaken the consumer confidence in their long-term prospects, further eroding their sales. In response, the car companies have stalled many new programs and let go of many engineers. The impact is the inability to consider new technology that suppliers bring to them for consideration – even if it saves money in the long run. The one exception is the intense focus on alternative propulsion (electric, hybrid, and fuel cell), partially in response to the government’s demand for a long-term solution to energy independence. Almost all of this development is in underhood applications. This will be tough for the little guy to have much direct impact, but they could assist the bigger Tier Ones with their development efforts.” Jeff Mengel, Plante & Moran PLLC

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