IRVINE, CALIF. — The instrument panel in Freightliner Corp.'s Century Class heavy-duty truck is no ordinary dashboard.
Nearly three years in development, the IP panel comprises 36 different plastic parts, made in 30 molds using four different processes, and includes four structurally bonded assemblies.
Its development and production prompted Consolidated Metco Inc.'s Plastic Division in Cashiers, N.C. — then known as Cashiers Plastic — two years ago to buy a 162,000-square-foot plant in Bryson City, N.C.
The company refitted the facility and equipped it with 18 new Toshiba injection molding presses with clamping forces of 250-1,950 tons, according to Tom Simon, Metco Plastics Division sales and marketing director. That plant now employs 100.
``This is the biggest program we've ever done,'' said Steve O. Norman, the division's general manager.
He noted that Metco molds more than 100 parts in the entire Freightliner program, including door panels, fan shrouds and modular sleeper cabinets, in addition to the instrument panels.
Simon said the dashboard project probably would count as Metco's biggest single plastics program. Once related products are included (47 tools are needed to make just the sleeper cabinet parts), Freightliner accounts today for upwards of $20 million in sales annually to Metco's Plastic Division.
Though Metco's commercial production of the new instrument panels for the Portland, Ore.-based truck maker began a little more than a year ago, the product had its coming-out party only last week in Irvine. It was there that the IP garnered the Conference Award and tied for the People's Choice award in the annual new-product design competition at the 25th anniversary meeting of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division.
The judges decided that the panel, more than any of the other 73 entries, embodied the sort of innovation, manufacturability and structural functionality that the contest was created to recognize.
In an interview at the meeting, Simon explained how the complex product came to be.
In mid-1993 Freightliner was eager to redesign the cab completely in its heaviest-duty truck, with a view toward increasing driver comfort. It invited Cashiers Plastic, which had been molding its IPs since 1980, to help. The companies have longstanding close ties — three former Freightliner vice presidents acquired Consolidated Metco, primarily an aluminum casting firm, in a 1987 leveraged buyout, and one of them, Ed Oeltjen, remains Metco's president.
Simon, who then was 29 years old and in charge of the molder's sales to the major truck manufacturers, relocated his office to the Freightliner facility in Portland to dedicate himself to the project. At that stage, according to Simon, the truck maker only had 40 percent-scale exterior clay models of the proposed new cab and, for cost reasons, was hoping to use straight injection molding to produce as many of the IP's components as possible.
Development progressed slowly, as Cashiers — along with toolmaker Delta Tooling Co. of Auburn Hills, Mich. — investigated alternative solutions.
The eventual result was a more-expensive instrument panel than Freightliner had in mind but, Simon claims, ``They got the features they wanted.'' These extend to such driver-desired convenience items as a swing-out waste bin and various cup holders — or, as Simon puts it, ``all the comforts of home.''
The resulting product also exploits the advantages of several processes, procedures and materials, and marries them efficiently and effectively:
Gas counterpressure is used in 10 highly visible parts where surface quality is needed along with structural strength.
Low-pressure structural foam molding is used in two hidden parts — the panel lower dash and the console support.
The Cinpres II gas-assisted injection molding system, licensed from Cinpres Ltd. in England, is used to make eight parts, including the upper and lower steering column cover, the right-hand upper dash cover and the knee bolster in front of the driver.
Straight injection molding — something the old Cashiers Plastic used very sparingly — is used in the other 16 parts.
Metco has programmed all 18 of its Bryson City plant's presses identically, allowing each press to run any of the above four processes.
``We wanted the flexibility to run any material on any press, any time,'' Simon noted.
Metco chose ABS resin for cost and performance reasons, except for parts above the knee line, where the need for higher heat-distortion temperatures under a more sharply raked windshield dictated use of polycarbonate/ ABS blends. It also applies soft-touch polyurethane paint to some of the dashboard covers.
Additionally, this project plunged Metco into the structural bonding business. No screws or fasteners are visible on the stylized dashboard. Instead, Metco uses ITW's AO420 acrylic adhesive to bond the IP's four assemblies, none of which could be molded cost-effectively as one component.
The independent assemblies provide structural support and eliminated the need for the traditional cross-cab beam, running from A-post to A-post.
Simon said Freightliner, with an estimated 30 percent market share of the U.S. heavy-truck market now, and an acquisition pending of Ford Motor Co.'s heavy trucks business, should make 20,000 of its Century Class trucks this year, with that number rising to 30,000 next year.
That should be more than enough to keep the molding presses at Consolidated Metco's Bryson City plant truckin'.