FORD DRIVING RECYCLED NYLON APPLICATIONS

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DETROIT — Formerly a poor relation to other recycled resins, post-consumer nylon now is being used by Ford Motor Co. in two separate under-the-hood applications touted as among the first commercial uses for the material.

By far the largest user of recycled nylon 6/6, Ford has begun making 3 million air-cleaner housings a year with the material at its Sandusky, Ohio, assembly plant.

The multimillion-dollar project, launched Jan. 7, uses nylon processed by resin supplier DuPont Co. from recycled carpet collected at 49 sites, including Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

In July, Ford also began using recycled-content composite nylon for fan assemblies on 260,000 Windstar minivans per year. That resin is reprocessed by Wellman Inc. at its Johnsonville, S.C., engineering resins division and injection molded on the fan modules by Bosch Automotive Motor Systems at its Albion, Ind., plant.

More Ford applications could be on the way before the year is out, said Andrew Acho, director of environmental outreach and strategy for Ford Automotive Operations. Acho said the carmaker's goal is to jump-start sustainable growth for the recycled nylon.

``Before you can develop products with recycled materials, you must have the demand,'' Acho said of Ford's aggressive recycling program. ``That's been our role in this. Now that we've taken action, we expect everyone else, including our competition, to get involved.''

In the past, nylon composites have taken a back seat to recycled polypropylene and PET due to nylon's high recycling cost and arduous cleaning process.

``It's definitely one of the newer kids on the recycling block,'' said Al Maten, automotive director for the American Plastics Council, based in Washington. ``Other automakers are starting to look at nylon, but Ford has been the main driver. In recycling, they've been the most vociferous and the most demanding.''

Both the fan modules and air-cleaner housings are identical in design to products using virgin nylon. The housing systems are equivalent in cost to those made of virgin material, while the fan assemblies are expected to save Ford $400,000 a year beginning in 1998, Acho said.

``The only way this made business sense was for the end product to be as good or better than the original and for the cost to be competitive,'' Acho said. ``I'd say we succeeded on both counts.''

In fact, no other carmaker has gone the distance with the nylon material, which consists of 25 percent recycled content compounded with glass- and mineral-reinforced virgin nylon.

In 1991, Ford instituted Recycling Action Teams, informally called RAT Patrols, at its plants to seek out uses for recycled materials. The company also issued an edict that to be considered recycled, a part must contain at least 25 percent recycled content.

Other carmakers use reprocessed resins, but not at the same level. General Motors Corp. recycles PP for several power-train applications, including blow molded air-duct assemblies and injection molded air-cleaner housings and air-intake manifolds. None of its products use more than 20 percent recycled content.

Cost has been a major hurdle for recycled nylon. For its air-cleaner housings, DuPont is absorbing some of the recycling expense instead of passing it to Ford, according to conservation consultant David Doyen of DuPont, which did not disclose the cost of its recycling operation.

``I'll admit that the cost to manufacture this composite is quite a bit more than to produce 100 percent virgin polymer,'' Doyen said from DuPont's Wilmington, Del., headquarters. ``But it's our hope that as volume increases, we'll get the benefit of economies of scale to bring the cost down.''

That could happen shortly. The nylon composite is now used with housings on more than 90 percent of Ford vehicles in North America and on the six-cylinder Mondeo world car sold in Europe, Acho said.

DuPont collects more than 27 million square feet of commercial carpet annually — an amount sufficient to cover the floors of both the New York World Trade Center and the U.S. Capitol Building complex in Washington.

At its Chattanooga, Tenn., recycling plant, the company separates the recycled nylon from pile carpet and shreds and grinds the resin to a diameter of 1.5 millimeters. After purification, the nylon is compounded with glass-reinforced virgin nylon at DuPont's Ravenswood, W.Va., plant before it is shipped to Ford's Sandusky facility.

Seventeen injection presses, each with a clamping force of 720 tons, mold the recycled-nylon housings at the 1.2 million-square-foot Sandusky plant.

Ford's recycled-nylon fan assemblies, which are mounted behind the radiator, are assembled at its Oakville, Ontario, plant. The fan modules will use about 1.25 million pounds of nylon per year mixed with 10 percent glass fibers and 28 percent mineral content, said Adam Sterne, engineering manager for air-flow systems with Bosch.

Bosch, a Farmington Hills, Mich., division of Robert Bosch Corp., injection molds the completed assemblies on 23 presses with clamping forces of 210-1,200 tons at its Indiana plant. The material is first ground and repelletized by Wellman at its South Carolina division headquarters.

In March, Ford plans to add the nylon material to fan assemblies on its current line of Mustangs, Sterne said.

Production figures have not been determined.

``What happened was that Ford started telling their suppliers to work with recycled nylon a few years back,'' said Tom Barnard, sales and marketing director of Wellman, which bills itself as the largest plastics recycler in the United States. ``So, we found a way to do it economically by paralleling production with our existing recycling processes. It's been uphill from there.''

In addition, Ford's Sandusky plant is scheduled to begin making air-cleaner housings made with 25 percent recycled PP for half a million 1997 Taurus and Sable cars at the end of February. Compounder Ferro Corp., based in Cleveland, will provide the resin from bottle cap scraps and cotton bale wrapping.

At least 1 million pounds of PP will be reprocessed each year for the project, said Laura Blades, Ford account manager for Ferro.