CHICAGO — The two largest producers of polycarbonate, Bayer AG and GE Plastics, have formed a joint venture to develop new technology to make PC automotive windows as a substitute for glass. The $40 million, global technology and marketing project is considered the first partnership between the two fierce materials competitors. Both companies have a 50 percent stake in the venture. A letter of intent was signed in May.
The firms plan to open a development and engineering center in the Detroit area by mid-1998 to come up with resin formulations, hard-coating materials and processes to drive the automotive glazing market. Site selection will take place after the venture is finalized in the third quarter.
The center is expected to include two injection molding machines with clamping forces of 2,000-3,500 tons and a coatings line, said Mark Witman, director of plastics technology for Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp, a division of Bayer AG of Leverkusen, Germany. The company is considering injection compression molding and other processes to create the all-plastic windows.
In addition, a design center will open near Cologne, Germany, during 1998 to allow the producers to serve the European market. A small liaison office also will be set up in Asia. All told, 25 people from both Bayer and Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics will be part of the venture initially, with that number expected to double within the next several years.
The resin producers expect the unlikely alliance to drive forward production of PC car and truck windows, a technology that has faced its share of legal and technological roadblocks since research began more than a decade ago.
Today, a federal law from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington prohibits all but the extremely limited use of plastic windows in the United States. Due to safety concerns, plastic windows are only allowed on the rearmost side windows.
Among the Big Three automakers, only two high-priced car models — the 1997 Corvette Targa from General Motors Corp., and the Dodge Viper from Chrysler Corp. — use plastic windows. Both applications are for removable roof panels.
The resin producers believe they are on the verge of technological advances that could crack open the market. If PC windows were installed on the 35 million vehicles sold worldwide last year, sales of the resin practically would double, said Gary Rogers, GE Plastics president and chief executive officer. Rogers estimated the market for polycarbonate windows at about $5 billion to $6 billion.
``We realized that by pooling our resources, we could move at a much faster pace than we could separately,'' said Rogers, who added that the firms began talking seriously about a venture three months ago. ``In this industry, one day we can be competitors and the next day we can be partners. The market conditions dictate that.''
The alliance hopes to have fixed rear PC windows on the road by 1999-2000, said Douglas Nutter, global glazing business director for GE Plastics. Nutter, who will head up the venture, said the next goal is to have movable side windows in production by 2005, he said.
Still, Nutter recognizes that work needs to be done before plastic windows are ready to be rolled out.
``The companies wouldn't have needed to work together if we already had the solutions,'' Nutter said. ``A major aspect of this program is to develop technology and determine its commercial feasibility.''
The resin suppliers have worked separately for several years on technology to resolve some of the issues surrounding polymeric windows. To answer questions of abrasion resistance, Bayer has developed an organic ceramic material that bonds with silicon to provide a hard coating, while GE has a plasma-based coating material.
In addition, GE has dispatched five Dodge Caravan minivans to various regions of the country to gain information about weatherability. The vans are equipped with sensors that detect solar and temperature exposure.
A key to the program will be convincing automakers to shift from glass to plastics, Witman said. While glass is less expensive than PC pound-per-pound, plastics has a cost advantage when integrated into an entire window system, he said. PC windows also are about 40 percent lighter than glass, he added, allowing for improved fuel economy.
``We know that we have to build confidence in this technology with carmakers,'' he said. ``That's where we have an advantage, by putting the resources of these two large companies together. It will be a strength for us.''
Several large automotive parts suppliers, including Magna International Inc. in Markham, Ontario, and Donnelly Corp. in Holland, Mich., also are working to create polymeric windows. The alliance plans to work with Tier 1 suppliers in a united front, said Klaus Seeger, general manager of Bayer's plastics business group.
``It will take an entire industry effort for this to succeed,'' Seeger said.
The technology ``has a lot of benefits for both Tier 1 suppliers and [original equipment manufacturers]. Now, it's time to take this technology further than it's gone before.''