DETROIT — Saturn Co., a pioneer in the use of automotive plastic body panels, now would like to be a forerunner in the elimination of paint.
The company, a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., is exploring an eventual shift to molded-in color for its injection molded panels, said James Ulrich, Saturn vice president of engineering.
Ulrich, based at Saturn's Troy, Mich., offices, said the technology is at least several years down the road. But if it works, the process will save Saturn millions of dollars in paint-shop costs and considerable amounts of plant floor space, he said.
``We'd love to see the technology applied to body panels,'' Ulrich said Jan. 5 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. ``That would be a step in the right direction for plastics.''
Saturn has tested materials for molded-in applications but has not found a solution that provides the necessary high gloss and smooth surface finish, he said. A switch to molded-in color panels will not be made until a material meets Saturn's standards, he added.
Currently, the company applies a special coating to its resin that can change the color formulation before painting. A shift to molded-in color would allow pigments matching the body's exterior to be applied to a resin before molding. Molded-in color panels now are used in extremely limited volumes in the auto industry, primarily for bumper fascias.
For its body panels, Saturn uses thermoplastic resin from both GE Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass., and Dow Automotive of Southfield, Mich.
The company also has decided to keep its injection molding technology in-house, Ulrich said.
Last year, Saturn had considered molding parts for suppliers outside Saturn, according to Saturn sources, to keep its work force and presses occupied after several production cutbacks. Saturn had purchased two HPM presses with clamping forces of 5,000 tons, and expanded its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant by 20,000 square feet to make room for the machines. The firm has a total of 35 presses at the plant, mostly from Ube.
But with the launch of a new midsize sedan planned for the middle of this year, Saturn has sufficient capacity to keep those presses running with Saturn parts, Ulrich said.
The two new presses began production last month and will make parts for the new LS midsize sedan — to be assembled in Wilmington, Del. — and other Saturn models, Ulrich said.
Richard Martinez, president of the United Auto Workers local representing the Spring Hill plant, said the union would like to see the Saturn work remain in-house. Relations generally are good between Saturn workers and management; the firm has never laid off plant employees since it started production in 1990.
``We're glad to have the capacity here to keep us busy,'' he said. ``It's the best situation for our workers to do work for Saturn.''