General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have given the go-ahead to produce the first commercial pickup trucks with plastic beds and tailgates.
Within two years, as many as four pickup models could be equipped with the specially molded boxes, including the load area and rear panels of the popular-selling vehicles.
Officials at Ford and GM will not talk publicly about the shift to plastic and have told their parts and resin suppliers to keep a lid on developments.
Privately, however, eight supplier and automaker sources discussed specifics of the plastic boxes and upcoming platforms. The plastics industry is eagerly awaiting the work.
Both Ford and GM initially plan to make a small volume of the plastic pickup boxes, between 40,000 and 70,000 vehicles for each platform during the first year of production. But that figure could soon swell to several hundred thousand vehicles on the road, sources said.
Industry sources estimate the market size for plastic pickup boxes to increase to more than $100 million annually within five years.
Still, initial contracts to suppliers Cambridge Industries Inc. of Madison Heights, Mich., and Budd Co. Plastics Division of Troy, Mich., are in the $15 million to $20 million range.
``Volumes will start low and go on a ramp-up schedule,'' said a plastic supplier involved in the project. ``We have a real shot of seeing an industry explosion into plastic boxes.''
Pickup trucks are among the highest-volume vehicles in the auto industry. In the United States, light trucks accounted for about half of all vehicle sales last year.
The move could stimulate a new round of buyer enthusiasm for pickup trucks. The boxes could cut the weight of a box by at least 25 percent, contributing to greater fuel economy. The dent- and corrosion-resistant boxes also eliminate the need for a plastic or rubber liner to protect surface finishes.
``The liners on a box can become a mess and trap condensate,'' a supplier said. ``I think the automakers recognize that. Even though [plastic] boxes will cost a little more than ones with steel, they might cost less when you throw in the cost of a liner.''
Automakers are preparing campaigns touting those benefits.
``Light trucks have gotten some bad press as gas guzzlers and causing major collisions,'' said one supplier. ``That's going to be a driver as automakers push for safer and more fuel-efficient trucks as a marketing tool.''
Almost overnight, the move could transform the plastics composites industry, doubling the usage and dollar volume of thermoset plastic parts on vehicles.
Ford is expected to take the first step. This fall, it will launch its new Explorer Sport Trac — shown at the 1999 North American International Auto Show — with a plastic pickup box, said sources familiar with the model.
The Sport Trac will be a hybrid vehicle, mixing the styling of a sport utility vehicle and the cargo bed of a pickup. The vehicle will come standard with a 4.5-foot plastic pickup box, sources said.
At the auto show, the Dearborn, Mich., firm put a lockable tonneau over the bed to keep the new concept under wraps.
Ford plans to make as many as 70,000 pickups with the plastic box on the 2000 model year, sources said. Budd Co. Plastics Division will compression mold the boxes using sheet molding compound.
The supplier will make the parts at its newly expanded, 250,000-square-foot plant in North Baltimore, Ohio, on compression presses with clamping forces as high as 2,500 tons.
Ford also plans to put SMC-based pickup boxes on a custom version of its F150 Crew Cab four-door pickup, due out by 2001. Cambridge will mold the box's outer and inner panels.
In addition, the automaker is working with Decoma International Inc. of Concord, Ontario, to put a plastic bed and tailgate on its Lincoln Blackwood luxury SUV. Ford has not announced a production schedule for the vehicle.
The SUV will include an enclosed, 4-foot box that also serves as a trunk. Decoma is considering molding the box in polyurethane using structural reaction injection molding, according to sources. The box will be integrated with decorative trim and taillamps.
Decoma sources were unavailable for comment. But other supplier bids on the project included the use of a plastic pickup box.
GM is taking a different approach than Ford. The automaker plans to assemble a plastic box for its highest-volume vehicles, the Sierra and Silverado pickup trucks. GM now produces about 800,000 of those pickups annually, said GM truck spokesman Daniel Flores, who would not comment on plans for a plastic pickup box.
GM will offer the 6.5-foot plastic box as an option — not a standard feature like Ford, sources said. GM will start with about 40,000 trucks with plastic boxes in the 2001 model, sources said.
``There's a big difference in each automaker's approach,'' said one supplier. ``With GM, it'll be an interesting marketing exercise. A plastic box could cost more than one with steel, so sales will depend on whether it is advertised correctly.''
According to sources, GM pushed the use of SRIM technology to make its boxes. The technology includes mixing PU and then spraying the material through a chopper gun over a fiberglass mat to create a preform mold.
Cambridge plans to mold the boxes at its 174,000-square-foot Huntington, Ind., plant, which Cambridge bought from Eagle Picher Industries Inc. in 1997. Budd will mold the outer panels.
Cambridge had temporarily closed the plant later that year before deciding to reopen it in anticipation of the GM contract, sources said.
GM's plastic-box project actually started sooner than Ford's. However, the company has had difficulties making the preform molds, sources said. That has pushed the project back from the 2000 to 2001 model year.
``It seems to be on track now,'' said one supplier. ``They're making prototypes right now for a test run.''