A Chinese automaker will launch one of the world's first cars containing a thermoformed body and plastic chassis, and its U.S. partners will use it as a production trial case for Big Three automakers.
The four-door sedan, called the Paradigm, already has elicited some skepticism that its developers can meet a January production deadline.
Even in small volumes, the car would go leagues beyond other attempts to substitute plastic for a conventional steel-bodied car. Consider these novelties on the envelope-pushing vehicle:
The Paradigm features an 11-piece, vacuum-formed body shell that is bound by adhesives to form a complete body.
Acrylic, not normally used on a car's body due to brittleness, will be a high-end material of choice for the panels.
The car's chassis is considered the first to be made entirely of thermoset plastic, replacing a steel frame with one made from fiberglass-reinforced polyester or vinyl ester resin.
The unpainted car uses more than 1,200 pounds of uncut plastic, more than any vehicle on the road, and weighs less than any family sedan either in production or on the drawing board.
The five-passenger sedan will be introduced by Sichuan Huatong Motors Group Co., a provincial car manufacturer in Chengdu, China.
The Chinese government has funded work by Huatong Motors to create a low-emissions, fuel-efficient vehicle, said Michael Van Steenburg, president of prototyping house Automotive Design & Composites Ltd. in San Antonio, Texas. Van Steenburg's company is the U.S. contractor developing the vehicle.
Huatong and the government plan to invest around $100 million in the global project, he added.
The Asian carmaker plans to make 5,000 vehicles for the first production year, ramping up to 30,000 vehicles annually by 2002. The vehicle will be sold in China initially and then rolled out to Central and South America through a phalanx of distributors, Van Steenburg said.
But North America is the eventual target, not to sell the Paradigm but to sell automakers on the technology. A group of leading U.S. resin suppliers, thermoformers, engineering and prototyping houses, and auto parts makers have banded together to see the car from development to reality.
So far the companies have invested about $2 million to make three prototype vehicles since the project began in June 1997.
Automotive Design will produce the thermoformed panels and assemble the vehicles for Central and South America at a new, 160,000-square-foot plant now under construction. Other parts will be shipped in a kit for assembly at Huatong's plant in China.
When the car is rolled out, the company plans to wheel it onto the parking lots of U.S. carmakers, said Van Steenburg, considered the lightning rod for many of the car's plastics inventions.
``We've worked closely with U.S. auto suppliers who want to try something new but have faced resistance from the Big Three [automakers],'' Van Steenburg said. ``Now, we'd like to come back to the Big Three with something proven that is in production.''
Those companies believe that change is afoot for car bodies. Automakers are scrambling to make lighter-weight vehicles that offer lower emissions at an affordable price. Chrysler Corp., for instance, is developing an injection molded, plastic-bodied car from PET.
However, because of the auto industry's large investment in stamping technology and lack of plastics expertise, change is slow, Van Steenburg said. ``You have to start from scratch someplace else,'' he said.
The steel industry is the Paradigm group's largest competitor to date. A group of 23 steel companies have developed an ultralight steel body that it is shopping to automakers. ``We're going after ultralight steel with a vengeance,'' Van Steenburg said.
The Paradigm weighs between 1,600 and 1,800 pounds — typical steel-bodied sedans weigh more than 2,000 pounds — and can be made with much lower tooling costs, he said.
The group's work is far from finished. Construction of four more prototypes, at Plastic Innovations & Tooling Inc. in Clare, Mich., must be completed before pilot runs can be made this fall.
Meanwhile, the Paradigm team still is debating how best to construct the composite chassis and needs to find the right adhesive to bond the thermoformed body panels.
``They must still learn to walk before they can run with it,'' said Andy Clutter, the St. Louis-based account manager for Bayer Corp.'s extruded products. Bayer is one of the material suppliers for the project.
But another of the project's resin suppliers cooed about the breakthrough technology.
``It takes an innovative mind to say `Let's develop a thermoplastic car,''' said Larry Tungate, new product representative with Aristech Acrylics LLC, a resin producer in Florence, Ky. ``With the proper backing and the right people, this can answer needs.''
It is the possibility of making an inexpensive and attractive plastic sedan that has suppliers rushing to help. Using a ceramic mold, tooling costs for the entire Paradigm vehicle run around $80,000, said Ed Bearse, president of Plastic Innovations, the project's toolmaker.
In contrast, tools for a typical injection molded bumper fascia cost at least half a million dollars, Bearse said. ``This will wake up a lot of people,'' Bearse said.
The new car is not just another subcompact for a developing nation. Its length is about that of a Dodge Stratus, more than 15 feet long, and it is equipped with amenities like air conditioning. The car—which has a two-stroke engine that can run on gas or electricity—will start at a base price of $8,500, Van Steenburg said.
The thermoformed body will be made from one of two cover materials over a base of ABS sheet. Low-end vehicles will feature a coextruded acrylic styrene acylonitrile shell, with a duller gloss, supplied by both Pittsburgh-based Bayer and BASF Corp.'s automotive division in Wyandotte, Mich.
Upper-end versions carry Aristech's acrylic sheet, offering a higher-gloss finish at a premium price.
Both resins do not require painting, eliminating a huge chunk of an assembly plant's costs, and can be formed in a rainbow of colors.
Thermoformer Curd Enterprises Inc., doing business as Multiplastics of Mount Pleasant, S.C., will mold the initial panels in its 135,000-square-foot plant. The work requires sophisticated forming techniques to allow precise fits for the body, hood and trunk parts, said Multiplastics Vice President James Waddell.
That process will not be easy but is critical to the growth of composites, he said.
``Every major car company is looking at composites,'' Waddell said. ``We took a fast-paced approach in development and tried to think out of the box instead of with conventional car designs.''
The chassis is a major departure. After initially considering making it from an ABS piece, Automotive Design now wants to make the car frame from continuously woven fiberglass that reinforces either thermoset polyester or vinyl ester.
The pultruded fiberglass—essentially pulled into an extruder on what looks like a big spool of yarn—has never been used before for a chassis, said Flavio Ortiz, regional sales manager for Houston-based Enduro Composite Systems Inc.
But similar composites have been used to make building walls that withstand hurricane loads and structures holding deep-sea diving equipment on an ocean floor, Ortiz said.
The chassis absorbs 80 percent more energy than steel or aluminum frames, Van Steenburg said.
``Right now, we're hoping we can get this done,'' Ortiz said. ``We're in kind of a time crunch. But that's how you sometimes stumble on the best ideas.''
If that does not work, aluminum tubing could support the body panels, Van Steenburg said.
Automotive Design will open its first thermoforming and car-assembly plant by January. The facility will include eight rotary vacuum forming machines. The company will invest between $20 million and $30 million in the facility, Van Steenburg said.
More than 150 employees will be added to the company, which now has 15 people.
Another 20 three-station thermoforming machines will be shipped to Huatong's facility in China to assemble the panels and cars for that market, Van Steenburg said.
Yet, whether the technology reaches American carmakers can be debated. While marine boat hulls are beginning to use thermoformed ABS, automakers have not taken the technology to heart.
``It's a production trial balloon,'' Van Steenburg said. ``We know the Paradigm isn't a high-volume car, but we'll have something to show in North America. That's where the real impact could be felt.''