FORD DUNKS RIM IN FAVOR OF TPOS

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UTICA, MICH. — The Ford Utica trim plant in Shelby Township, Mich., is investing $33 million to convert from reaction injection molding to injection molding using thermoplastic olefins.

The company is installing 13 Ube injection presses, each costing an estimated $1.5 million, to mold bumper fascias from polypropylene-based TPOs. Each press has a clamping force of 4,000 tons, and the machines will run a total of 29 tools.

The installation is scheduled to be completed by the end of 1997, when the plant will have phased out its RIM operations. As new presses have gone on-line, the plant has shifted some production from its polyurethane-based RIM equipment to the new machinery.

``It's a gradual process but one that we're excited to complete,'' said Gerald Dominick, advanced engineering manager for the 2 million-square-foot plant. ``At the end of the day, we can get a product that has better quality and lighter weight with the TPO process. That's ultimately very good for the plant.''

Four of the 450SW toggle presses already are operating at the plant. The equipment is in an expanded, 47,000-square-foot area earmarked to make fascias for the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable car lines and Explorer and Lincoln Navigator sports utility vehicles.

Switching from PU to the lighter-density TPO allows the plant to save as much as 50 percent in weight per part, Dominick said. The higher-pressure TPO process also prevents trapped gas from forming and leads to a smoother surface, he added. Unlike the PU parts, TPO bumpers do not need to be hand-trimmed.

``We'll reduce some of the intensive labor costs to hand-trim each part,'' Dominick said. ``But when you figure that we'll need more people to run the presses, we won't significantly reduce our work force.''

The plant has scaled down since 1994 to focus on several core components, including door panels and taillamps. The Utica center, part of Ford's Automotive Components Division, has about 2,600 hourly workers and produces about 1,900 end products per year. In 1994, the plant produced 4,300 products, many of which have since been outsourced to suppliers.