DETROIT - GE Plastics plans to focus its automotive business on a handful of key market applications in the coming decade, with polycarbonate glazing the area with perhaps the greatest potential. And, taking a cue from the consolidation frenzy sweeping automotive supplier ranks, the Pittsfield, Mass.-based resin supplier also is reducing its product portfolio to produce fewer, more robust materials.
GE Plastics views the auto industry as a proving ground for new materials and cost-saving manufacturing tools, said Jeffrey Immelt, vice president and general manager for the Americas.
``Automotive today is really driving the heart of our technology,'' he said in a speech at the Society of Plastic Engineers regional technical conference Nov. 8-9 in Detroit.
For car companies, the key elements for survival and growth are globalization of manufacturing, lower costs, reduced vehicle weight and quality. For suppliers, Immelt said, the top priority is ``cost, cost, cost.''
At the Detroit conference, Immelt also expressed the hope that major resin suppliers couldbegin to work together to improve the efficiency of durable goods recycling.
The supply of recycled resin, he noted, is costly and inconsistent and scrap parts are difficult to process because of complications with adhesives, paint and coatings. By working together, Immelt said, resin suppliers might be able to untangle problems of material identification and inefficient take-back systems.
Such a cooperative recycling initiative, he added, could be organized with the help of the American Plastics Council, but very well could go beyond APC.
GE Plastics is, like much of the auto industry, adopting a lean diet.
In 1991, 50 percent of the company's products combined to contribute just 1 percent of its sales. GE Plastics since has slashed its product portfolio by 60 percent, Immelt said.
GE's focus in automotive is tracking four general applications: parts that weather well and do not need paint; consolidation of parts into larger, structural pieces; under-the-hood components that can take highheat; and the glazing.
Applications with molded-in colors that also require weather resistance, such as window frames or mirror housings, could provide savings of 20 percent or more over comparable painted parts, Immelt said. Not only do parts makers eliminate painting and emissions associated with paint systems, but they do not have to worry about removing paint before recycling.
PC glazing, injection molded with a hard-coat glazing, could provide weight reduction and better security compared with glass. But automakers have been slow to adopt the material because of past problems with discoloration and poor resistance to scratching.
At the automotive Retec, Immelt showed a picture of a PC roof panel for the 1995 Chevrolet Corvette that he said offers a weight savings of better than 40 percent compared with competing materials.
He referred to the entire plastic glazing effort as ``our version of the Holy Grail.''
GE is sharing its automotive expertise in materials and manufacturing with parts makers, working in cross-functional development teams.
This year, GE has launched 80 customer projects that it says have saved better than $40 million in costs. GE and its customers typically look for improvements in such areas as inventory management, manufacturing flow and scrap reduction.
Partnership, Immelt said, is ``more a way of business than ever before.''