Decoma International Inc. has joined a supplier team assembled by DaimlerChrysler Corp. to make a vehicle encased in structural plastic.
Concord, Ontario-based Decoma will work with injection molder Cascade Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., to experiment with processes to mold the four-piece body panels for the lightweight vehicle of the future. Cascade specializes in the production of large body parts.
Decoma also is heading south with a supplier team from DaimlerChrysler. Decoma will invest between $21 million and $25 million to open an injection molding plant in Brazil. The plant will be located on a supplier campus outside Rio de Janeiro to make parts for the Mercedes-Benz A class vehicles.
The vehicles, small city cars, are scheduled to begin production in South America for the 2000 model year. They already are sold in Europe.
The Decoma plant, located in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, will mold thermoplastic bumper fascias, fenders and lift gates for the A class, said Randy Smallbone, Decoma vice president of finance. The 130,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open next fall and employ at least 200 people, Smallbone said.
The facility will start with two large-tonnage injection presses, a bonding line and other equipment, he said. Equipment tonnage has yet to be decided at the plant, which is expected to generate about $50 million in sales annually, Smallbone said.
``The plant will be used for Latin American [parts] consumption,'' Smallbone said. ``We plan to ship the parts to Argentina, Mexico and other markets.''
Decoma's work on the futuristic plastic car body could have as long-lasting an effect on the company's products, Smallbone said. The vehicle could represent an important step forward for the use of automotive plastics.
The much-ballyhooed experimental small-car prototype, known as the Composite Concept Vehicle, or CCV, will be used as a test bed by the carmaker to build one of the world's first vehicles with a plastic body shell. The carmaker plans to make a plastic-bodied car for mature markets such as North America and Europe.
Current plastic-bodied cars in production have impact-resistant, hanging steel sheets underneath. Chrysler's project essentially eliminates the use of that structural steel.
The car's development is going through a major shift. The carmaker currently is testing materials and processes at its Liberty & Technical Affairs test facility in Madison Heights, Mich., and at various suppliers' locations, said Larry Oswald, executive engineer for advanced body engineering with Chrysler Liberty.
Decoma will help the team develop quick and inexpensive prototype molds for the massive body panels, made either from PET or an olefinic alloy, Oswald said. In addition, the supplier will help run a parts tryout facility that DaimlerChrysler plans to start using in July.
Another CCV team member, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, is building an injection press with a clamping force of 8,800 tons. Husky will lease the press and the facility space to Chrysler for vehicle testing. The press will be based at Husky's new development center in Novi, Mich.
The program could give Decoma a leg up on cutting-edge technology, Smallbone said. ``If the program is successful, it will obviously give deeper penetration to plastic on a vehicle,'' he said.
The team still needs to tackle such issues as surface quality for the molded-in-color parts and impact resistance, Oswald said. Currently, to meet federal impact standards, the group is considering some type of metal or composite reinforcement in the body.
But DaimlerChrysler would like to avoid that option, Oswald said.
``We want plastic to do as much of the work as possible,'' he said. ``We don't want to add extra mass or slow down the processing time. My original vision was a one-piece plastic body. We're a way's away from that.''
No target production date has been set, he added. Once the carmaker gives the green light, the vehicle could be in development within three years, said DaimlerChrysler spokesman Scott Fosgard.
Decoma shareholders were first told of the project Dec. 10 during an annual meeting of Decoma's parent company, Aurora, Ontario-based Magna International Inc.
Last year, Magna spun off Decoma as a separate, publicly traded entity, though Magna continues to hold majority ownership. Decoma is Magna's largest plastic-molding subsidiary, making body panels and bumper fascias.
Decoma recorded C$1.166 billion in 1998 sales (US$757.4 million). The company ranked 12th on Plastics News' 1998 list of largest North American injection molders with an estimated $323 million in injection molding sales.
At the annual meeting, company officials also said that Decoma plans to capitalize on a growing market for bumper fascias on light trucks. Fascias, the stylized outer skin of a bumper, will become widespread in a few years on pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, said Magna President and Chief Executive Officer Donald Walker.
Magna also plans to spin off its mirrors group within a year, said Magna Vice Chairman James Nicol at the meeting. The group molds, paints and assembles interior and exterior mirrors and housings, grab handles, interior lights and encapsulated glass, air vents and grilles.
The mirrors group recorded sales of about C$200 million (US$130 million) for the 1998 fiscal year, which ended July 31.
Michael Lauzon, Plastics News' Toronto-based correspondent, contributed to this story.