BERNE, IND. — For eight months, engineers from GE Plastics and United Technologies Automotive Inc. beat a well-trodden path to Ford Motor Co.'s door.
They came bearing a moderately radical idea.
The engineers wanted to add a minuscule carbon-fiber material — with each piece about one-ten-thousandth the size of a human hair — to a GE resin. The material would be used to paint automotive side mirrors at UTA's injection molding plant in Berne, Ind.
Ford kept turning those engineers back with questions, and the engineers kept returning. Their sheer obstinacy may have opened the floodgates to an improved, hotly contested way to paint plastic parts.
The technique — creating some of the first conductive plastic resins for painting — also has spread ample frustration to resin suppliers. Even within Ford, people have been divided over adopting the fibers, called graphite fibrils, or moving instead to new breeds of carbon powder.
All agree that conductive plastics can chop painting costs by reducing waste and emissions. The nouveau plastics are well-suited for electrostatic painting, where the conductive material gets a static charge that causes it to bond electrically to a part.
However, while electrostatic painting is in vogue, only Ford and French carmaker Renault SA have agreed to paint with resins charged with a carbon filler.
The penthouse-level price tag for the fibrils — about $50 a pound, according to some sources — has penny-wise automakers casting a wary eye. Yet, both GE and UT Automotive have touted fibrils, saying systems savings and the small fibril dosage justify its use.
``I'm sure Ford got tired of seeing us come around, so they finally said yes,'' said Ronald Hendricks, Dearborn, Mich.-based UT Automotive's technical manager for mirror systems. ``We learned a lot with Ford, and now we know what questions General Motors [Corp.] and Toyota [Motor Corp.] might ask us.''
Ford, which has used the fibrils on its Taurus and Mercury Sable exterior mirrors since September 1997, also has developed a high-structure carbon black that could be competitive. That material costs around $2.50 a pound.
``It's not fibrils, and it carries a much lower price tag,'' said Jeffrey Helms, senior technical specialist at the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn. ``We've talked to UT Automotive and GE about going to our carbon fibers because they are much more cost-effective.''
Yet, that material also has its Achilles' heel. For thermoplastic olefin applications involving the carbon black, a pricier primer coat still is needed to adhere the TPO to paint. For fibrils, primer is not necessary.
In fact, Visteon Automotive Systems, Ford's parts-making unit, used the new carbon platelets to paint bumper fascias for the 1998 Taurus and Sable. But Visteon's Utica, Mich., plant decided to go back to nonconductive parts for 1999 models after having difficulty balancing costs, Helms said.
However, the carbon black could cut costs at the UT Automotive plant, Helms said. At that plant, GE's Noryl GTX-brand polyphenylene oxide/nylon alloy is used with fibrils, and primer is not applied.
Ford and GE lawyers are attempting to work out an agreement to mix Ford's carbon black with GE's GTX. The talks were scheduled for completion June 1 but are still continuing, Helms said.
Meanwhile in Europe, GE also has blended carbon filler into GTX resin for Renault's body panels on its Scenic Megane sedan, said industry manager Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran from GE's Southfield, Mich., automotive center.
GE is ready to pounce on a major market for plastics growth, he said. The auto industry spends more than $8 billion a year on paint and uses 300 million pounds of painted plastic, according to GE.
``This is potentially huge for the automotive market,'' said Umamaheswaran. ``The frustration comes at the painting level. Current economics keep some suppliers from plugging in increased charges for raw materials. But fibrils can mean more capacity for them.''
Another resin supplier, Solvay Engineered Plastics of Auburn Hills, Mich., has entered the race for the perfectly painted part. The company is using Ford's carbon black in some of its resin formulations. But the company urges patience.
``It's a lengthy process to bring carbon materials to the manufacturing plant,'' said Solvay OEM marketing manager Andre Ferland. ``You can't take the apple from the tree before it's red. We're still looking at products and systems and how it fits.''
Moreover, BASF Corp. in Mount Olive, N.J., is testing a conductive grade of its Ultramid nylon for exterior mirrors and snowmobile hand grips, said spokeswoman Diane Actman.
The market has opened for one reason: Plastics can be a problem child for an automotive paint shop.
At UT Automotive's Berne plant, fibrils are used to paint about a million plastic mirrors a year from a two-story paint shop with large metallic walls and swiveling spray-painting arms. Plant workers call the shop ``the battleship'' for its sturdy structure and seven large paint booths.
Before switching to electrostatic painting in 1994, the mechanical arms would splay the booths' cloth walls with more paint than went onto a part.
As much as 80 percent of the paint missed its mark, said Darrin Keiser, the plant's paint business unit manager.``Plastics is inherently resistant to paint,'' Keiser said.
UT Automotive first solved that dilemma by changing to an electrostatic primer. The electrical charge would suck as much as 50 to 60 percent of the paint to the parts, Keiser said.
But the primer cost $10 to $12 a gallon and was the source for about a third of a paint line's hazardous emissions, Keiser said. The plant was forced to curtail production to stay below federal emissions standards.
Enter a Cambridge, Mass., research company called Hyperion Catalysis International Inc. The company developed the patented fibrils, tubular curlicues that can be embedded into virtually any thermoplastic.
``It's one of a kind,'' said Hyperion General Manager Stephen Friend, an enthusiastic fibril salesman. ``Our first idea was to make little, tiny fillers to reinforce rubber tires. But we found a lot more benefits to make conductive auto parts without messing up mechanical properties.''
That interested GE, which had tried other types of carbon fillers. However, the former resins were more brittle and would crack or peel under extreme temperatures, Umamaheswaran said. A more competitive solution was needed, he said.
``Steel is already inherently conductive,'' Umamaheswaran said. ``When you eliminate the primer step for paint adhesion, you can save over 20 percent of the paint cost by using plastic.''
The time might be right. Automakers are finding that a paint line can cost hundreds of millions and dispatch dreaded emissions, said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
``Everyone would love to deep-six or at least reduce costs at the paint shop,'' said Cole, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. ``It's not in the cards yet, but we definitely have some alternatives.''
Fibrils could be one of them. UT Automotive has lowered hydrocarbon emissions by 40,000 pounds a year by eliminating primer and has increased transfer efficiency, or the amount of paint hitting a part, by at least 12 percent, Keiser said.
Now, the plant would like to use carbon materials for mirrors for GM's Park Avenue and Toyota's Avalon sedans, Hendricks said. Painted grilles are another option.
UT Automotive even has tried to shop the process to other suppliers to help the entire industry, Hendricks said. ``Some of them are afraid to change,'' he said.
Friend has turned his attention to other applications. They include automotive fuel systems, where fibrils are used with nylon 12 on both the inner surface of a piece of tubing, and for electrical connectors.
The material helps fuel flow and eliminates static buildup, said Kevin Bonhoff, director of marketing for resin supplier Creanova Inc. of Piscataway, N.J., which uses fibrils in its products.
Other, nonautomotive applications also are on Hyperion's plate, including adding the fibrils to computer disk drive housings for better performance.
``Automotive [applications] take on a life of their own,'' Friend admitted. ``The qualification process is long and laborious. It was time for us to turn to electronics and focus on that area.''