DETROIT — If its plans come to pass, Ford Motor Co.'s newly christened Visteon parts-making group could propel the use of integrated, plastic, molded modules into uncharted territory.
Interviews with top executives at Visteon revealed a strategy to make over much of a vehicle's interior and exterior parts to create a series of interconnected systems. Injection and blow molding technology to create products in a few steps would be key to the revamped production process.
Among the ideas either in design or in limited production are a complete exterior front-end system; highly stylized, molded forward and rear lighting systems; a connected wiper and windshield wash system; an integrated interior cockpit system; and molded seats complete with air bags and electronic sensors.
The Dearborn, Mich.-based company also is considering producing all-thermoplastic body panels that could be used by Ford for a new vehicle in emerging markets. Chrysler Corp., based in Highland Park, Mich., introduced plastic structural panels in September for its experimental CCV model.
If successful, Visteon's integrated systems approach would dramatically slice production costs by cutting cycle times and boiling down the number of components. Moreover, traditional manufacturing processes at Visteon, formerly known as Ford Automotive Products Operations, would be turned on their ear.
``Plastics has been partitioned into [separate] interior and exterior divisions,'' said Roger Saillant, vice president in charge of Visteon's new interior systems division. ``That has a dramatic impact by providing more focus to improve our business in an urgent and directed way. We're looking at everything that we should logically consider to create systems.''
Creating new products will require Visteon to perfect new methods to speed prototype production to five weeks or less — or even eliminating the need for rapid prototyping altogether through advanced computer-aided design methods, Saillant said.
On Sept. 9, Ford officials announced at the Frankfurt, Germany, auto show that the company had completed a restructuring of its APO division, formulated a new global marketing plan and changed its name to Visteon.
The division, which recorded $16.4 billion in sales last year, expects to increase sales to non-Ford companies to 20 percent of revenues, Visteon President Charles Szuluk said at the show. The company also created 24 strategic business units to make 27 systems, 10 modules and 64 component groups.
However, Visteon officials did not announce at the show where it would place its resources or how that would affect its 74 plants. Those details are just starting to emerge. The company is still designing and testing many of its new products, Saillant said in a telephone interview from Visteon's offices.
``Each [new product] will either be a make or break business,'' Saillant said. ``If the sample doesn't produce value for our customers, it won't lead to a successful business. We're enhancing our design capability and looking intensely at each area.''
On the interiors side, the company has targeted integrated cockpit systems. In theory, the molded cockpits can comprise virtually the entire interior, with parts molded to an instrument panel as a base. Those parts could include overhead systems, climate control components and electronic circuitry. The company also is considering integrating door and seating panels with the cockpit.
Visteon has successfully designed a complete cockpit system but has yet to produce it for a customer, Saillant said. Its interior systems could be in production by next summer, he added.
New seating systems, featuring injection molded seat backs, also are in development at Visteon. The group is testing smart seat designs that incorporate air bags, sensors and electronics and seat temperature controls. Complete seating system designs could still be a few months away, Saillant said.
Plastic parts might also be integral for Visteon's exterior group. Earlier this spring, the division became one of the first auto-parts manufacturers to produce blow molded bumper systems, which it makes at its Milan, Mich., plant for several unspecified car companies. But that's just the beginning, said James Wynalek, vice president in charge of Visteon's exterior systems division.
``We think this will evolve to a complete, integrated front-end system molded in sequence,'' Wynalek said. ``It's designed to cut labor costs in the assembly plants. We've done several concept builds, and we're about ready to modify vehicle structures to try to produce it.''
The integrated front-end package would include a plastic grille opening reinforcement, cooling system and plastic, energy-absorbing bumper beam replete with foam buns to deaden impact. Such a system could begin production within the next few years, Wynalek said.
Other pre-assembled modules include an integrated, windshield wiper and wash system that could feature an injection molded or co-extruded coolant reservoir, Wynalek said. Visteon already makes a modular wiper system at its Bedford, Ind., plant but expects to expand those capabilities, he said.
Exterior lighting also is a targeted area. Visteon would like to mold integrated, single-point front and rear signal light assemblies that are thinner and smaller than current parts. The systems could use molded, reflective parabolic lamp lenses that enhance optics and can be styled to match a car's design, Wynalek said.
Finally, the Ford division is considering production of plastic exterior body panels for an upcoming vehicle in developing countries, Wynalek said. The structural thermoplastic piece could be available as soon as next year, once color and styling issues are addressed, he said.
``We're interested in looking at exterior body panels as an emerging market solution,'' Wynalek said. ``We're already well-positioned overseas, and we can see a competitive market scenario for alternative vehicles in the next few years.''