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TI Automotive: Plastic fuel tanks promise to take the hybrid heat

By: Dustin Walsh
CRAIN'S DETROIT BUSINESS

October 28, 2013

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — All roads lead to California — at least when it comes to the creation of a complex plastic fuel tank system called the Tank Advanced Process Technology.

In the 1990s, the Golden State's regulations on greenhouse gas emissions spurred a flurry of engineering advancements in North America and Europe to prevent vehicle emissions. Among the areas of innovation: fuel tanks.

Auburn Hills-based TI Automotive Inc. recently launched its newest innovation, the Tank Advanced Process Technology, at its plant in Rastatt, Germany, to supply the Daimler AG S class, including the Mercedes-Benz S-500 plug-in hybrid.

The use of a plastic fuel tank in a hybrid is a differentiator for TI, since most hybrids use steel tanks because of the intense heat from lithium-ion battery packs, said Al Deane, chief technology officer for TI Automotive.

TI Automotive's TAPT opens the mold during the cycle to robotically insert fuel system components inside the tank, then closes it again to complete the molding and seal the tank. Other fuel tank makers use similar in-mold placement of components during blow molding.

The process provides TI a threefold benefit, Deane said.

The stiff, pressurized tanks are heat-resistant, allowing the tanks to be used on hybrids and electric vehicles for the first time. Also, because the tanks are sealed while still hot and use no external sealing hardware, vapor points are eliminated — good for the environment and emissions standards.

Another benefit, Deane said, is the process can be done on existing blow-molding machines, cutting costs for TI Automotive.

"The shape of cars keeps changing due to the different powertrains (standard, hybrid, electric, etc.)," Deane said. "The complexity of tanks has become much higher, and it's expensive to make many different tanks on many different machines."

Because TI Automotive can create fuel tanks of multiple shapes, sizes and complexities all on one machine, it's prepared to offer the process on customers' global platforms, Deane said.

"Today, a plastic diesel tank would be made from one supplier and a steel tank with a different supplier; now that doesn't need to happen," he said. "TAPT lets us produce multiple types of fuel tanks for the different powertrains from one blow molder."

TI Automotive holds 20 patents around the world for the technology, which has been in development since 2008, Deane said.

TI Automotive's Rastatt plant will produce 300,000 units in the first year, but more contracts are on the way.

The technology was developed for the European market in Germany, but engineers from Auburn Hills are developing tanks for the North American market standards. The supplier has development contracts on the technology with a U.S. and a Japanese automaker, Deane said.