While not yet committing to production, Chrysler Corp. plans to develop an all-plastic car body for the North American market within three years.
Last week, the automaker said it moved closer to that goal by prodding equipment supplier Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. to open an ambitious development center in a Detroit suburb two years earlier than planned. The center will open in July 1999.
For Chrysler's use, the Bolton, Ontario, supplier will make the world's largest two-platen injection press, a machine the size of a locomotive with a clamping force of 8,800 tons. An equipment supplier familiar with large presses said similar machines cost upwards of $7 million.
Husky will spend more than $10 million for the 65,000-square-foot center in Novi, Mich.
Husky's press—weighing as much as two 747 airplanes when the molds are inserted—will be assembled at the facility. Chrysler has signed a four-year lease to use the machine to make plastic car-body parts for testing, said Larry Oswald, executive engineer for advanced body engineering with the Auburn Hills, Mich., carmaker.
Within that time, the automaker will decide whether to purchase presses to make plastic car bodies, Oswald said. If that is the case, equipment will be used either at Chrysler assembly plants or by a major exterior-parts supplier, he said.
Chrysler would like to complete tests by 2001 to meet an auto industry deadline three years later to provide a lightweight prototype vehicle for North America, Oswald said.
The company's proposed all-plastic cars use four injection molded body panels—two exterior and two interior panels—that pare vehicle weight to as little as half that of steel-skinned models. By eliminating paint and reducing parts, assembly plant start-up costs can be cut by about two-thirds to as little as $300 million per plant, Chrysler has said.
Chrysler's initial concept vehicles were targeted at low-cost, no-frills applications in emerging countries. Those car bodies, using molded-in color, had a rough-hewn, matte finish.
``What we're trying to do now is press the molding technology beyond Third World vehicles,'' Oswald said. ``To be sold internationally, we needed better precision in parts and a glossier surface finish. Now we think maybe this material could be good enough for North America.''
Chrysler hinted at that during the Detroit auto show in January. The carmaker paraded two concept cars, a family sedan based on its Dodge Intrepid ESX model and a sports car, with plastic bodies.
Differing from other models covered with plastic, including General Motors Corp.'s Saturn car line, Chrysler's cars would eliminate the sheet of hanging metal under the skin. The proposed vehicles are made of high-impact, structural plastic using glass-reinforced PET material.
However, a stumbling block had been the lack of a press best-suited to mold a sophisticated body panel for North America, Oswald said. Cascade Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., had made two prototype plastic-bodied cars, called the Composite Concept Vehicle, targeted at developing nations.
Cascade uses two dual, side-by-side injection presses, each with a clamping force of 4,500 tons, from Battenfeld of America Inc. The presses, normally used to make waste containers, can run simultaneously to yield 9,000 tons of clamping force.
But the Husky press will distribute resin more evenly to the large body pieces by injecting resin into the mold's center instead of to its sides, Oswald said. That causes the material to travel a shorter distance.
The new Husky press also will feature a barrel and injector screw closer in size to the amount of resin needed, he said. With the larger barrel used by the Cascade machines, resin sat too long in a molten state, according to Oswald.
``The new press allows us to get to the next step on this project,'' Oswald said. ``The Cascade presses were not ideal, and only three or four other presses have been built this large in the world. We couldn't just go down the street and use one.''
Cascade will supervise molding on the new Husky press, he said. Cascade officials would not comment on those plans late last week.
The Chrysler project will take close to half the space inside the center, said Trefor Jones, general manager of Husky's Detroit region. The facility also will include as many as six other injection presses with clamping forces of 60-4,400 tons, Jones said. The size of the center could expand quickly depending on customer needs, he added.
The technology center will conduct process development, customer training and demonstrations and integrate manufacturing cells with molding equipment. Work also will focus on hot-runner systems, process controls and robotic operations, he said.
The center will start with about 50 people, including 15 from Chrysler. Husky now has a small sales and service office in Troy, Mich., with 10 employees.
The gargantuan, two-platen press will be designed at Husky's new Dudelange, Luxembourg, facility and will use parts sourced in both North America and Europe, Jones said. The disparate pieces will be shipped to the Novi facility for assembly.
``A lot of our design effort reflects what's required of large molded parts,'' Jones said. ``The [Chrysler] program still has some development work to do, and we've given the project the best opportunity for a high degree of success.''
Chrysler already has invested more than $50 million to develop all-plastic bodies, according to several sources. Other companies, including resin supplier Ticona GmbH of Frankfurt, Germany, and adhesive maker Ashland Chemical Co. of Dublin, Ohio, have developed new materials for the plastic car skins.
Chrysler plans to test new material and adhesive formulations on the new press and evaluate various tooling processes, Oswald said. The firm also will attach car bodies to existing models to check for impact resistance.
Because there aren't many all-plastic car bodies to go around, injection molding machines in the stratospheric-tonnage range are rare. Ube Industries Ltd., has developed industrial drawings for presses as large as 10,000 tons, but the company has never received an order for a machine that big, said Chris Wild, regional sales manager at Ube's U.S. factory, Ube Machinery Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Husky press could be the largest single machine ever built. Saturn uses a 7,000-ton Ube press at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant, while Paris-based auto supplier Compagnie Plastic Omnium SA runs a Billion press with an 11,000-ton clamping force at a facility in France.
But the Plastic Omnium press is configured from two 5,500-ton injection units that can operate simultaneously, said Plastic Omnium North American sales director Michael Mackens. That machine currently makes sailboards for windsurfing vessels.
The drive by Chrysler could spur the making of larger injection presses, said Chris Carls, injection molding systems product manager for Warwick, R.I.-based Battenfeld.
``We're anxious to see how this takes off,'' Carls said. ``There could be a good new market for huge machines, depending how capacity is used.''
Chrysler's drive is part of a push by Big Three automakers to develop fuel-efficient vehicles, Oswald said. As part of their Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, each carmaker has agreed to provide a production-prototype midsize sedan by the year 2004 that gets at least 80 miles per gallon.
Chrysler officials could not comment on how the proposed merger with Daimler-Benz AG would affect the plastic car project. One source said last week that the merger's impact is uncertain.
However, Daimler-Benz is involved in the Smart Car, a two-seat European vehicle due out later this year that uses plastic body panels with a layer of steel underneath.
A zoning change helped attract Husky to Novi, said the city's economic development coordinator, Greg Capote.
Novi has created a special zoning category called OST—office-service- technology—that makes it easier for research-and-development firms to locate in the city.
Novi City Council voted May 11 to rezone the Husky land, and other sites, to OST. The land mainly had been zoned residential-agricultural. About 1,000 acres in Novi is zoned OST.
Husky did not receive any special tax-credit incentives, he said.
Plastics News senior reporter Bill Bregar contributed to this story.