How quickly the tables can turn. The steel industry, once the sufferer of hand-wringing for its lost opportunities and declining market share, now is making a ferocious comeback with automakers.
Thirty-five steel companies have banded to form a group called the Auto/Steel Partnership.
The result has been a $22 million project to create ultralight steel materials. The steelmakers displayed a lightweight steel body at the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars, an automotive conference attended by thousands of top executives in Traverse City, Mich.
Of course, plastics folks can boast about their own lightweight body project: a prospective all-plastic car body, with no hanging steel sheets underneath, being developed by Chrysler Corp. and eight supplier partners.
But some troubling signs appeared that all is not well.
Auto executives wondered why the plastics industry hasn't come together like its steel competitors to develop lightweight body materials. No concerted effort has been waged by any of the trade associations, not even from such likely suspects as the American Plastics Council or the Automotive Composites Alliance.
The sad fact is, the automotive industry would give its eye teeth for such a collaboration. The Big Three have until 2004 to develop a prototype family sedan with dramatically lower emissions and fuel efficiency as high as 80 miles per gallon.
That effort, called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicle, is fueled by a high-powered consortium of automakers and the federal government.
Chrysler's director of its PNGV program, Steve Zimmer, said its low-emissions car might not be entirely plastic. Instead, it will probably be a mix of plastic with some metal beneath it, he said.
Plastics has not yet proven to be viable standing alone as a structural body, he said. There are issues with impact resistance, with surface finish, with fading, with cost. Chrysler and its partners are working feverishly to cut to the heart of those problems.
But they could use help.
``I'd like to see a group of plastics companies devote more effort on joint issues like materials and pricing,'' Zimmer said.
Instead, the plastics industry has remained mum and in the background.
Pete Peterson, director of automotive marketing for U.S. Steel Group, was asked during a conference panel discussion about the competition between ultralight steel and plastic.
``The Fiero,'' he muttered, followed by a pause and then laughter from the audience. The long-dead-and-buried General Motors Corp. car had a plastic body.
How quickly the tables can turn.
Pryweller is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter.