In a former World War II munitions warehouse, what looks like confetti from a rapid-fire machine gun sprays a hole-pocked screen.
Meanwhile, a group of automotive-industry observers looks on at what some industry officials have christened a breakthrough in plastics composites technology.
The Sept. 25 event, at the National Composite Center in Kettering, Ohio, took the wraps off what the group hopes will be the first commercial pickup-truck boxes made from plastic.
A consortium of Big Three engineers, working with assorted suppliers, has developed a lower-cost method of using structural reinforced injection molding — with fiberglass-reinforced polyurethane — to make the pickup boxes and other parts. The shaped preforms — which move to a press for molding — are made in a novel process that shoots chopped glass over a screen.
Since before the days of ``The Dukes of Hazzard,'' pickup boxes have been made from the toughened steel deemed necessary to haul heavy loads over the worst of road conditions.
But to members of the Automotive Composites Consortium and others, the low-volume pickup boxes are only the start of great things for plastics. It is future work in higher-volume, structural body parts — primarily the domain of steel — that has them excited.
``This is our opportunity to bring the technology to the next level on a larger scale,'' William Mellian, transportation market specialist with Toledo, Ohio-based glass producer Owens Corning, said in a telephone interview. ``We hope now that the project will build confidence in the Big Three and their molders to invest in commercial applications.''
The automotive consortium —a 10-year-old group representing Big Three automakers — has worked for about three years after carting over new technology from Europe. The consortium is part of a Southfield, Mich.-based trade group, the U.S. Council for Automotive Research.
Until now, plastics has not been much of a role player for those components, said Norman Chavka, technical specialist with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. and the project leader for preforms.
But that could shift as the auto industry seeks out lighter-weight, lower-cost, noncorrosive parts for such steel-dominated components as the 6-foot-long truck boxes.
``The [composites] technology is going to make plastics look a lot more attractive to automakers,'' Chavka said.``It's being developed by high-level people in the industry who never would have used composites before this.''
The new technology — dubbed P4, or programmable powder preform process — is at a crucial juncture. On Dec. 1, the first prototype pickup boxes are expected to roll off the National Composite Center's leased SRIM press, which has a clamping force of 1,000 tons, and sent to supplier MascoTech Inc. in Taylor, Mich., for assembly on pickup trucks.
Then, the trucks will be dispatched to a Chrysler Corp. test site. Once there, the consortium members, working in a pre-competitive spirit, will spend about six months testing the boxes for durability and performance, said USCAR spokesman Chris Terry.
Automakers then will make their own calls on whether to take the boxes into production on new models.
To date, the project has cost about $4 million in equipment and production. Those costs have been split almost in thirds among U.S. automakers, suppliers such as Owens Corning and Textron Automotive Co. in Troy, Mich., and the federal government.
But a dissenting faction lurks on the project. Makers of components from sheet molding compound believe the next wave of plastic pickup boxes should come from their ranks. The SRIM process is too expensive, said Kenneth Rusch, technical programs manager with SMC parts producer Budd Plastics Co. in Troy, Mich.
``We've never figured out a way to mold a part twice [shaping a preform and then a part] and making it as cheap as molding it once,'' he said. ``Maybe the [consortium is] more clever than us.''
For both sides, steel is the bull's-eye to aim for. By eliminating hundreds of thousands of dollars in steel stamping dies, composites producers are banking that they can make a less-expensive pickup box.
For the SRIM project, the boxes can be made 25 percent lighter in weight, helping to reduce emissions and save fuel costs, Chavka said: ``We've never had anything in the market before like this.''
But previous attempts to make plastic SRIM parts have failed, he added. Higher costs, longer cycle times and too much material waste have caused automakers generally to stick with steel.
Previous SRIM processes had used a pricier, continuous-strand glass mat, a thicker glass layer spread over a mold. About 60 percent of the material then must be trimmed and scrapped in a labor-intensive operation, Chavka said.
The new process replaces that glass blanket with chopped glass. The material is sprayed by a robotic chopper gun over a preform mold containing a screen with about 40,000 holes.
Compared with the glass mat, the chopped fibers reduce part costs by about 40 percent, and waste is virtually nil, Chavka said. A box, stretching the length of a pickup cab, can be made at a clip of about one every four minutes, he added.
Those preliminary figures could make composites a contender, Mellian said.
``The barriers before were the inability to produce parts at high volume and low cost,'' Mellian said. ``That could be changing.''
The first pickup boxes will be made at the 200,000-square-foot, former munitions warehouse owned by the National Composites Center. An aerospace consortium, using carbon fibers instead of glass, also is experimenting with the process at the center to make composite aircraft parts.
For the auto industry, pickup boxes are the center of attention. The P4 technology first was developed by Owens Corning in the 1980s, Mellian said. The work gelled when SRIM equipment supplier Aplicator Systems AB of Goteborg, Sweden, sent some of its first preform machines to an Owens Corning technology center in Battice, Belgium, in the early 1990s.
Aplicator's chopper gun, mounted on robotic arms, can shoot 12 pounds of glass each minute onto the rotating preform mold, said Aplicator President Peder Jonsson. The machine also sprays a melted polyethylene binder onto the glass. The preformed, shaped mold then is placed in an injection press, where liquid PU resin is shot into the mold.
``With this machine, you can put the amount of glass you need in the right position,'' Jonsson said. ``This is the best way to make structural car parts with good accuracy.''
Aplicator estimates that a firm could build two entire plants — building, land and all — for the cost difference between steel stampings for a typical structural part and a composite piece.
If the project goes well, Aplicator hopes to sell equipment commercially to Big Three automakers within a year, Jonsson said.
Composites could be used for such steel-dominated areas as body side panels and large door openings, Chavka said. Douglas Denton, senior materials specialist with Chrysler Corp. and a consortium member, said composite bumper beams are not out of the question.
The National Composite Center was chosen to help bridge the gap between concept and the marketplace, said Richard Lee, NCC executive vice president. The center opened three years ago as the project was beginning to bear fruit, he said.
``I think it has the potential for lowering the cost of applied composites to structures made of other material,'' Lee said. ``Once the project's finished and the veil of secrecy is gone, you'll see this expanding into a lot of areas.''
But the project has its detractors. Some industry observers wonder whether pickup boxes are a good use of time. The companies could produce as many as 60,000 pickups boxes annually from one machine, Chavka said.
``It's a low-volume part,'' said one executive with an auto supplier. ``It won't mean that much compared to making a part on many more vehicles.''
Plus, some pickup trucks need the extra weight, especially for off-roading situations, said Phil Sarnacke, business development manager with Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. The lightweight benefits of plastic might prove to be an illusion, he said.
``I'm not saying it won't work,'' Sarnacke said. ``But some people throw sandbags in their trucks just to add weight.''
The SMC industry also is shopping its version of pickup-box material to carmakers, Rusch said. SMC, like PU, is not used currently on U.S.-built pickup boxes.
Ford and Cambridge Industries Inc., an SMC parts supplier in Madison Heights, Mich., have worked together for years to develop SMC pickup boxes, Rusch said. That provided the genesis for the new project.
But why did the industry go to SRIM instead?
``It can be political,'' Rusch said. ``Or it could be that they wanted to experiment with something entirely new.''
Still, the industry eventually should come back to SMC because of cost, he added.
``With SMC, you can have as many as 45 pieces of steel replaced essentially by a one-piece molded part,'' he said. ``With SRIM, you still have to mold-in ribs and attaching features. We've presented our concepts to [automakers], and they've been well-received.''
But both the SMC and SRIM camps agree that plastics is poised for a breakthrough in large structural pieces. What they disagree on is what exactly will be the next big thing.
``We've demonstrated that the technology can work,'' Chavka said. ``Now, it's a matter of showing that we have something new and improved for pickup boxes. Testing will give us that answer.''