DEARBORN, MICH. - You might expect someone associated with the Dodge Viper to be comfortable with high speeds and extreme concepts. And for Roy Sjoberg, chief engineer for Chrysler Corp.'s high-performance roadster, they may be just as important in the more mundane business of mass-producing auto parts.
``You've got to watch out for the innovation wave,'' Sjoberg said. ``You can look at the extremes and get some sense of where this business might go.''
Sjoberg was a speaker at the Society of Plastics Engineers automotive regional technical conference, held Nov. 8-9 in Dearborn.
Using the Viper as an example, he showed how vehicle development can benefit from creative thinking and a strict focus on customer needs.
The current windshield, for example, uses a single-piece trim design that eliminated 40 stamp-ings from an earlier version. For a racing model of the Viper under development, designers came up with a 5-pound composite door to replace the fully trimmed stock door, which weighed 54 pounds.
The Viper, which has a resin transfer molding composite body and a sheet molding compound hood with a metal support, is of special interest to plastics suppliers because of its role as a test bed for new manufacturing processes and materials at Chrysler.
The automaker sold about 2,000 of the $59,000 sports cars last year.
The Viper, introduced for the 1992 model year, scared off some suppliers who did not think the risk of participating in the project was worth it, Sjoberg said.
He questioned whether some parts makers were simply too comfortable with their position in the industry.
But developing parts for the Viper also has been an exercise in learning the mind of the car buyer, the ultimate customer. Suppliers increasingly will need to direct their focus to the consumer, rather than Big Three purchasing departments.
``Our automotive business is radically changing because we're demanding [that you] understand the customer better,'' Sjoberg said.
And when things break down, and the customer is unhappy, suppliers will be held accountable more often.
``You will pay the warranty for your part, and believe me that's a big chunk of change,'' Sjoberg predicted.
Plastics processors also should expect to contend with a ``world of dissimilar materials'' in the future, he said.
Automakers will be experimenting with new combinations of materials to come up with the right performance at the right price.
Processors, for example, may need to learn more about the metal-stamping business to produce body panels with metal supports.
Plastics processors still are fighting an uphill battle on some applications, such as body pan-els, where the fit of the part is affected by environmental factors, such as heat and humidity. This for plastics, Sjoberg said,was the ``bane of its existence'' and a worry to many vehicle assemblers.
``The problem with plastics is the day-to-day variability,'' he said. ``If you talk to plant managers, they're scared to death.''
Sjoberg also predicted less use of plastic exterior trim,which is too commonly used to ``cover up all that metal because it doesn't look pretty.''
``The death knell has not rungfor steel,'' he said.
At the same SPE conference, following Sjoberg's appearance, GE Plastics Vice President Jeffrey Immelt touted plastic as a material that works extremely well for body panels, fenders and hoods.
But he added, do not expect an all-plastic or all-steel world.
``The truth is that most materials will coexist,'' Immelt said.
When asked to comment on Sjoberg's remarks, Immelt said plastic has been successful in those applications in which it is viewed as the primary material, not simply a replacement for steel.
He cited General Motors Corp.'s Saturn vehicle as an example.
``I don't think the day is over for plastic body panels,'' Immelt said. ``But there's more work to be done.''o