CINCINNATI - In an unusually high-volume composites application, Ford Motor Co. is using one composite part to replace 20-plus parts for the instrument panel, air duct and main steering column support on 1995 Ranger and Explorer trucks. Ford made more than 675,000 Rangers and Explorers last year. The part, called a cross-truck beam, acts as the ``backbone'' of the instrument panel. Cambridge Industries Inc. is turning out more than 3,000 of the compression molded units a day in Centralia, Ill., said Richard Pistole, Cambridge engineering director.
Cambridge, based in Madison Heights, Mich., said the beam is the first multifunctional, cross-vehicle beam structural made of a thermoset composite.
Cambridge has set up highly automated production to meet the high-output level. Each beam is molded in two parts. Robots handle the parts at the press. A conveyor moves them to a dedicated secondary finishing area, where front and rear components automatically are deflashed and drilled. After a power-washing process to eliminate dust, robots adhesively bond the two components together.
Ashland Chemical Co. displayed the cross beam at its booth during the Composites Institute's annual conference in Cincinnati, held Jan. 30-Feb. 1. Ashland's Composite Polymers Division supplies the Hippi-brand polyester resin for the sheet molding compound part. Ashland also supplies its Pliogrip adhesive to Cambridge.
Ford assembles the instrument panel in Saline, Mich. According to Cambridge, the SMC beam eliminated more than 20 steel and plastic parts. The part is 53 inches long and 15 inches wide. Thickness ranges from 21/2-4 millimeters. The SMC material contains 40 percent glass.
The part also saves space - a limited commodity in a truck cab - by combining the structural beam and a nonstructural duct for heating and air conditioning into one unit, according to Richard Jeryan, senior technical specialist at Ford.
Cambridge was involved from the prototype stage.
``For the vehicle manufacturer, the system is more efficient to assemble and install,'' Pistole said. ``The customer gets a quieter, smoother ride and improved fuel economy.''
The beam assembly acts as a mounting platform for under-dash electronic modules, knee bolsters, fuse boxes, wiring harness routing and air-bag mounts.
One automotive composites consultant called parts like the beam ``a new world for SMC'' - a part of the automotive composites industry that has won in the past by being cheaper than stamped steel at low volumes.
``This is a very significant area that SMC is expanding into,'' said Jim Best, who directs the Annual Automotive Plastics Report at Market Search Inc. in Toledo.
``With these structural applications, your savings often come in the labor, parts consolidation and use of modular pieces, the kind of things that often can make sense regardless of volume,'' he said.