When Chrysler Corp. unleashed its all-plastic-body Composite Concept Vehicle last week at the Frankfurt, Germany, auto show, it effectively pulled down many of the fences confining the plastics industry.
The prototype vehicle, known as the CCV, is one of the first cars formed entirely from a thermoplastic structural shell with only a brief hint of metal. While not yet road-ready, the CCV could make plastics a key player in the auto industry's hunt for fuel-efficient, low-cost vehicles in both developed and emerging nations.
If crash tests this fall prove successful and a market exists in a developing country, the little subcompact could roll off the production line as soon as 2000, said Thomas Moore, general manager of Chrysler's Liberty & Technical Affairs advanced development group in Madison Heights, Mich.
``We tried to stretch the envelope as much as possible,'' Moore said. ``The biggest challenge we overcame was the skepticism that we could do something this big. It had never been done before.''
In development for three years, the CCV essentially comprises four massive, injection molded parts — two outer and two inner body shells — bonded to each other. The parts, which together weigh 210 pounds, are then set on a tubular steel frame that holds the suspension and powertrain.
The parts are made from 15 percent glass-reinforced polyester, a material chosen partly for its proven recyclability with soft-drink bottles.
The deceptively simple process was the handiwork of seven suppliers and Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler. What came out of lengthy meetings and escalating development costs was more than merely a dirt-cheap vehicle for those who currently can't afford cars.
It also pushed those plastics-industry suppliers beyond their previous limits.
``My feeling is that history is being written right now,'' said Fred Keller, chairman and chief executive officer of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Cascade Engineering Inc. ``We've found a new way to make plastic car bodies very successfully. We've turned a corner.''
Consider some of the breakthroughs by the CCV team:
Cascade, the project's molder, developed sequential gas-assist molding techniques for large parts that cut cycle times to three minutes.
Paragon Die & Engineering Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., provided 160-ton steel production molds for three of the body panels. The molds, considered the largest ever used for injection molding, are bigger than most minivans. Each mold is capable of producing about 120,000 vehicles.
Transporting the tool required that the cavity and core each be divided into three sections mounted on a common plate. Each tool took about a year to build, said Paragon President Ralph Swain.
Another toolmaker, Weber Manufacturing Co. in Midland, Ontario, provided a special nickel tool for the fourth body panel made through a vapor deposition process. The tool, less than half the weight of the steel mold, required that nickel carbonyl gas be mixed with a heated mandrel. A nickel mold had never been attempted for a mold that large, said Weber Chairman Reinhart Weber.
Equipment supplier Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, is designing a special 9,000-ton injection press to use in case the CCV goes into production, said Trefor Jones, general manager of Husky's Detroit region.
Jones said that, to his knowledge, no other one-piece, 9,000-ton press has ever been used in North America. Cascade Engineering currently uses two 4,500-ton Battenfeld presses that can be mounted in tandem to form a 9,000-ton unit, Keller said.
Material supplier Ticona GmbH of Frankfurt, Germany, formulated a special colored, ultraviolet-stabilized PET composite that is both tougher and stronger than typical PET resins, said program director Stephen Leyrer in the company's Summit, N.J., office.
The company, which is changing its name from Hoechst Celanese Corp., prepared the PET formulation exclusively for Chrysler's use. The formulation costs about $1.50 a pound, less than one-third the cost of other composite materials.
Ashland Chemical Co. of Dublin, Ohio, developed a special urethane-based adhesive system that can bond the panels under extremely fast cycle times and is compatible with PET recycling, said market development manager Wolfgang Oplesch.
``All of us on the team believed we were crazy enough that this might work,'' he said.
In addition, fixture and mold suppler Progressive Tool & Industries Inc. of Southfield, Mich., provided cooling and bonding fixtures suitable for the gigantic molds, said Moore at Chrysler.
Chrysler envisioned the market for the CCV primarily as developing Third-World countries, where cars are not now affordable for those outside a privileged class, Moore said. Prices could start as low as $6,000 for a new CCV, which is expected to get 50 miles per gallon.
Achieving that price requires keeping a lid on production costs. The team initially considered a variety of alternative materials, including thermosets such as sheet molding compound, but found that tooling costs were too high to support high production, Moore said.
Injection molded PET offered cost advantages, said Moore, who equated the use of four body panels with snapping together a toy. By eliminating welded parts, the carmaker estimated the plant investment at less than $300 million, compared to about $1 billion for a typical Dodge Neon assembly, engine and transmission plant, he said.
The use of in-mold color slashes another $350 million to set up a paint line, Moore said. Other savings came from the elimination of about 3,000 parts compared to a Neon.
A driving force behind Chrysler's work was a statement made in 1995 by Chrysler vice president of vehicle engineering Francois Castaing, Moore said. Castaing said that he believed plastics were too costly to be used in a fuel-efficient vehicle. Moore said his team set out to prove him wrong.
Chrysler had used plastic fenders on its 1994 LH vehicles but had switched back to steel.
``We had a hell of a time with plastics,'' said Castaing, referring to difficulties with high-heat resistance and fit.
The CCV is far from a proven commodity. Models will undergo a series of 35-mph crash tests to see whether a hollowed-out plastic body can meet U.S. and European safety standards. There are questions about color matching during repair work and whether consumers will accept a rough-hewn matte finish instead of the customary high gloss.
And there is skepticism from other materials groups, including the steel industry.
``I wonder whether the infrastructure is available to repair a plastic car,'' said Peter Peterson, director of automotive marketing for Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Group. ``I don't know if the system used to maintain a metal-based car can be easily switched over to an entirely new type of vehicle. That could be especially difficult in an emerging country like India.''
The four-door vehicle is also far from sporty. It contains no air conditioning, few interior adornments and a small engine with little pep.
But it also has fared well in durability tests. Computer simulations performed at Chrysler's Liberty center have re-created the molding process, including mold flow and gas-injection points. The vehicle also passed muster in temperature extreme and impact tests done via computer, Moore said.
``Right now, we have a business case that works,'' Moore said. ``How much more it will take to bring [CCV] from concept to production reality is still anybody's guess.''