ROCHESTER HILLS, MICH. — Cie. Plastic Omnium SA is eyeing North America like a kid in a candy store.
The Paris-based automotive supplier plans to introduce several innovative products to the U.S. market, including plastic fenders and complete front-end modules. The seeds for those products already have been planted in Europe.
The company also is considering the far-reaching possibility of producing injection molded fuel tanks.
Those products — and the opening of new plants — would help satisfy the company's hunger for growth in North America. Omnium would like to build its North American automotive business to $200 million in sales next year, according to Phillipe Claye, president of Anderson, S.C.-based Plastic Omnium Industries North America. He spoke Sept. 15 in an interview at the firm's Rochester Hills technical center.
In 1997, the company generated about $80 million in U.S. sales for its blow and injection molded auto parts.
Plastic Omnium already has staked out a claim as one of Europe's largest plastic molders, making fuel tanks, door panels and exterior parts. The $1.4 billion company records about three-fourths of its sales from auto parts.
In 1995, the company opened its first North American plant in Anderson, specifically to make bumper fascias and coextruded fuel tanks for a new BMW AG assembly facility in Spartanburg, S.C., 50 miles away.
The supplier plans to open two more plants next year, one adjacent to its Anderson facility and the other in Mexico.
In mid-September, the company also opened its first testing facility in North America. The ambitious center in Rochester Hills was set up to surpass federal test requirements for bumpers and fuel tanks, said Pascal Bardet, director of engineering for Plastic Omnium's North American operations.
``We want to be ready for the future,'' Bardet said.
The center includes a metal pendulum capable of hitting a bumper at 15 miles per hour to check for impact strength, plus several federally approved fuel tests.
Those tests focus on gas permeation, emissions levels and the recovery of airborne vapors.
The center was partly designed to get engineers in the door so they can see what Plastic Omnium can do, Claye said.
``We have a unique advantage as both an injection molder and a blow molder,'' Claye said during a tour of the new test site. ``That differentiates us from a lot of other companies.''
Injection molded fuel tanks could be one result of that process mix. Today — with the industry moving quickly from steel to plastic fuel tanks — plastic tanks are blow molded either in one fluorinated layer or in a six-layer configuration.
Plastic Omnium is evaluating a long-range move to injection molded tanks, which would lessen the capital outlay for equipment, said Laurent Hebenstreit, president of the company's fuel systems division worldwide. The molder already has done conceptual drawings to make the tanks.
But the project still must pass a feasibility study that will judge the tanks' performance, Hebenstreit said. That could take as long as 18 months.
If the tests show promise, Omnium expects that the first injection molded tanks could be on the road as early as the 2005 model year, Hebenstreit said.
Several resin suppliers, including Shell Chemical Co. and Dow Chemical Co., are developing resins for injection molded tanks. However, material choices have not been decided, Hebenstreit said.
Already on the road are Omnium's first all-plastic fenders, made with GE Plastics' GTX Noryl polyphenylene oxide resin. The fenders, located above the front bumper and on the car's rear, are used on the new Beetle from Volkswagen AG.
In Europe, where about 5 percent of vehicles have plastic fenders, the company's fenders commonly are used on vehicles made by Daimler Benz AG and Renault SA, Claye said.
Only General Motors Corp.'s plastic-bodied Saturn line and the VW Beetle currently have plastic fenders produced in North America, Claye said.
That work could evolve into entire front-end assembly, with the bumper and fender integrated with a radiator support, headlamp housing, grille and other pieces, Bardet said.
The company has developed a prototype front-end module, using the Renault Clio sedan body as a model, Bardet said. Omnium has two projects in development to make front-end modules with European automakers, he added.
Plastic Omnium also is stepping up growth with two new plants slated to begin operating next year. In Anderson, the company plans to build a new, 80,000-square-foot facility to make the coextruded tanks, according to Claye. The new plant would serve as a sister facility to the 3-year-old, 160,000-square-foot facility there.
The company, which plans to invest more than $10 million in the building, needed the plant to support new business from both BMW and GM, Claye said. Equipment purchases have not yet been determined at the plant, which will begin production in January.
And in Mexico, Plastic Omnium will build a second plant near a GM assembly site in Ramon Arizpe.
The plant location has not yet been decided, nor has the plant's size, Hebenstreit said. The facility will make fuel tanks and bumper fascias for GM and its Adam Opel AG division in Europe, Hebenstreit said.
Plastic Omnium currently makes plastic fenders and bumpers parts for the Volkswagen Beetle at a facility in Puebla, Mexico.