In a decision that might drive forward an already revved-up market, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has started installing plastic air-intake manifolds for the first time on select European vehicles.
The parts, produced by underhood parts supplier Mann+Hummel GmbH of Ludwigsburg, Germany, are considered Honda's first entry into plastic manifolds and the first manifolds supplied by an outside source to an Asian carmaker.
The engine components, made of glass-reinforced nylon 6, are being used on Honda Civic models equipped with 1.6- and 1.8-liter engines for the European market. The cars are being produced at Honda's Swindon, England, plant. Production, which began this spring, is expected to reach 40,000 units annually, according to industry sources.
Honda's use of the vibration-welded manifolds could be a momentum-building step toward greater production, said James Riordan, regional vice president for Mann+Hummel's North American operations, based in Southfield, Mich.
``We had yet to see the Asian market take the first step in welded manifolds,'' Riordan said. ``Now that Honda has clearly expressed an interest in the technology, others in both North America and Asia might seriously begin to look at it. It's not just a question of one car company embracing it.''
That scenario would play out well for Mann+Hummel, one of the world's largest producers of welded plastic manifolds. The Tier 1 parts supplier operates a plant in Sonneberg, Germany, that currently makes 1.5 million welded manifolds per year.
That number includes the Honda manifolds, which the plant began making in March. The 236,400-square-foot Sonneberg plant uses two injection presses with clamping forces of 500 tons to mold each half of the manifolds, which are then welded together.
The company, which recorded $800 million in sales last year, says it makes about a third of the world's plastic manifolds. Mann+Hummel has 18 plants and sales locations worldwide.
Welded manifolds compete not only with cast aluminum pieces but with other plastic manifolds using the lost-core process.
Currently, about half the plastic manifolds in Europe use the lost-core process and the other half are welded, Riordan said. However, while lost-core manifolds have captured about two-thirds of the North America plastic manifold market, welded manifolds have yet to make much of an impact on this continent, according to industry experts.
The number of welded manifolds produced in Asia has been extremely small, Riordan said.
Besides supplying the parts to European carmakers, the firm also provides welded manifolds to vehicle platforms made in Brazil by Volkswagen AG, Riordan said.
Yet the Asian market has been difficult to open, he added. Honda officials, who chose not to comment, had reservations about the use of polymers, including their durability and capability to muffle engine noise.
Mann+Hummel convinced the carmaker that the nylon material was as quiet and durable as cast aluminum. The company also found the plastic manifolds to be 20 percent lower in cost that their aluminum counterparts and half the weight, Riordan said.
The development process took 18 months from the first discussions to the completed product.
``We'd rather not have to work as quickly on every project,'' Riordan said. ``But this certainly was well worth it.''