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DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is making a $139 million investment by the year 2000 at its Milan, Mich., plant so it can put six-layer plastic fuel tanks in millions of Ford vehicles.

The company, based in Dearborn, Mich., plans to convert a substantial portion of its North American cars and light trucks to multilayer tanks within the next three years. By the end of 1997, the coextruded tanks will be installed on about 700,000 Ford vehicles, said Milan Plastics plant manager for plastics, Frank Remesch.

That figure is expected to rise to about 1.7 million vehicles by the end of 1998, and to 2.75 million vehicles by 2000, according to Remesch. Ford gradually is installing a total of 11 Krupp Kautex blow molding machines at the plant to make the coextruded tanks.

For comparison, a total of 3.9 million Ford vehicles were sold in the United States in 1996. Remesch said that Ford plans to continue making steel fuel tanks, depending on vehicle specifications.

The $139 million investment in multilayer tanks covers equipment costs for the 11 new machines, welding and assembly operations, building expansion, tooling and product development. The expansion will make the Milan plant the largest worldwide maker of coextruded tanks under one roof, Remesch said.

Ford's investment helps pave the way for the kind of growth industry experts had predicted in the North American market for the six-layer tanks. According to some sources, a majority of new vehicles now under development by Big Three automakers will use coextruded tanks.

For the past three years, the Milan Plastics plant has been making monolayer plastic tanks — made with a single layer of high density polyethylene — by using 17 blow molding machines. Those machines will be phased out by the year 2000 as the plant switches completely to the six-layer design.

The six-layer tanks include a bottom layer of virgin HDPE; a layer of adhesive; an ethylene vinyl alcohol barrier to prevent fuel and vapor permeation; another adhesive layer; a layer of reground HDPE; and a layer of vinyl molded in carbon black for ultraviolet protection.

The reground HDPE comes from material shaved off during the tank molding process. About 38 million pounds of HDPE is expected to be recycled each year by the plant's hot-melt grinder system.

The plant began testing coextruded tanks in 1992, at a time when multilayer models were not yet being made in North America, Remesch said.

``We had a lot to overcome,'' he said. ``We made a substantial outlay to develop the process because we were betting that [multilayer tanks] would become the norm. We picked the right time frame.''

The timing was right because of the advent of stricter hydrocarbon-emissions regulations, Remesch said. The multilayer tanks, with their EVOH barrier, meet the upcoming regulations while monolayer tanks do not, he said.

The tanks also have more fuel capacity than their steel counterparts, weigh less and can be molded to fit the most confining floor space conditions, Remesch added.

To do the work, the plant is installing 10 double-shuttle blow molding machines and one single-shuttle machine. Each double shuttle — which uses dual clamping sections to process two lines of material simultaneously — will make about 200,000-250,000 tanks annually. The coextruded tanks will be used on the Ford Aerostar and Windstar minivans; the Expedition and Ranger pickup trucks; and the Mercury Mystique and Ford Contour, Escort and Probe passenger vehicles.

Several other new Ford platforms will feature the coextruded tanks, said Donald Drake, launch manager for coextrusion fuel tanks at the plant. Drake declined to name specific vehicles.

``We've developed a process that helps us be cost-competitive with the rest of the industry,'' he said. ``We can't sit still while others move forward.''

Plastic tanks are rapidly becoming the industry standard, said Joel Kopinsky, president of ITB Group Ltd., an automotive research company in Novi, Mich. A recent ITB research study forecast that, by 2001, 51 percent of all vehicles built in North America will have plastic fuel tanks. In Europe, that figure is expected to reach nearly 77 percent.

Today, virtually all plastic tanks built in Europe are multilayer units, Kopinsky said. Only 40 percent of North American cars with plastic fuel tanks have a multilayer design, he added.

Other suppliers have girded themselves for the growth by opening new tank plants and expanding existing ones. One company, Walbro Automotive Corp. of Auburn Hills, Mich., expects to make 6.5 million plastic tanks — a large percentage of them multilayer — by 2000.

The Milan plant began phasing in coextruded tanks in July, when it added one blow molding machine to make tanks for the Expedition sport-utility vehicle. About 200,000 tanks are expected for the 1997 model year, with volumes of 250,000 units projected annually after that.

In December, two more blow molding machines were added to make 350,000 multilayer tanks a year for the Windstar, which had been redesigned. In January, another two machines were installed to make 400,000 tanks this year for the Contour and Mystique. The rollout process will continue until August, when two more blow molders will begin making a half-million tanks per year for the Ranger.

Then four machines will be phased in gradually by 2000. The machines will be placed on concrete slabs in an expanded, 85,000-square-foot plant area at the 1.3-million-square-foot plant.

After the tanks are blow molded, they are cooled and shipped via conveyors to a hot-plate welding area for the fitting of fill necks, rollover valves and other pieces. Fuel sending systems are then assembled to the units. Finally, tanks undergo testing —where as much as 2 pounds per square inch of helium is injected into them — to check for leaks.

About a third of the Milan plant is devoted to tanks. The plant also makes about 1.6 million bumper fascias per year from thermoplastic olefins. For the fascias, the plant operates roughly 40 injection presses, with clamping forces of 1,000-4,000 tons.

Unlike other Big Three carmakers, Ford decided to make the tanks itself. The company refined the process to lower costs and raise efficiency, Remesch said.

``For us, it's a way to survive and to prosper,'' he said. ``We're in the business of fuel tanks, and we had to do something different to stay competitive. So we upped the ante [by making multilayer tanks] so we can stay in the game.''