DETROIT - Lear Corp. is developing a radically new interior door panel that consolidates all major mechanical components and trim cover into a single module. The panel, now in prototype testing, advances Lear's efforts to produce modular components, in which a major piece of a vehicle interior is delivered to automakers fully assembled, wired and ready to install. Modular production already has arrived for such interior components as instrument panels and seating and is working its way into other areas.
The new ``structural'' door panel also represents a stronger push by Lear into a promising, but highly fragmented, market.
The door panel, which has a main body of injection molded plastic, consolidates ``everything but the sheet metal'' and even reduces the depth of the stamped steel outer door, said Daniel A. Jannette, vice president of the technology division at Lear's automotive interiors group.
The firm is building a driveable test vehicle to try the new door panels, new seating concepts and a modular headliner also under development, he said.
The test vehicle, which may be on the road by the end of this year, will be one way to combine the various technologies now grouped under the Lear umbrella after the recent acquisitions of Automotive Industries, a manufacturer of interior components, and Masland Industries, a supplier of automotive flooring and acoustical insulation.
Lear is positioning itself as a producer of an entire vehicle interior, or major sections of the interior, which it says will allow it to reduce product and overhead costs and deliver better quality to its customers. The company currently supplies all major interior components except for instrument panels.
This push toward systems integration among interior components suppliers also is reflected in the recent acquisition of trim supplier Prince Automotive by seat maker Johnson Controls Inc. and the joint venture between Sommer-Allibert of France, a major supplier of dashboards in Europe, and the German electronic firm of Siemens AG.
In the door panel market, automakers and suppliers have worked to reduce complexity, lower costs and simplify assembly. The most notable advance of late is the Super Plug door module developed by General Motors Corp. for its new generation of minivans. The plastic Super Plug module consolidates most of a door's inner workings, replacing 60 parts and shaving eight minutes from assembly time.
Lear's structural door panel has not been approved for use by an automaker but may see acceptance ``very early in the next decade,'' Jannette said. Door panel production might mimic what is developed in the seat market, where suppliers located near assembly plants build and deliver seating on a just-in-time basis. But for door panels such a system would require big adjustments.
``Somewhere along the line, the [original equipment manufacturer] has to change the way the vehicle is assembled to allow this to happen,'' Jannette said.
Emerging markets in Asia and Latin America might provide an opportunity to introduce such a radical new door panel, Jannette said. That would allow a supplier and assembler to prove the part, possibly on a limited production vehicle, with new assembly methods.
Lear is looking at headliners and door panels as major growth areas for its interiors business. Door panels, representing more than 40 percent of Automotive Industries Division sales, is a product category that Lear compares to the seat market in the early 1980s: a large number of suppliers, no dominant player in the industry and only now beginning the process of consolidation and outsourcing.
For 1995, Lear estimated the North American door panel market at $1.5 billion and the European market at $1 billion. The AI division, despite its position as one of the largest producers, only had about a 15 percent share of the North American door panel market, Lear said. Most European door panel production, the company said, still is handled by the captive parts-making operations of the vehicle assemblers.