Several European automotive suppliers are riding a wave of interest among U.S. automakers for welded plastic air-intake manifolds.
After a long wait, an emerging technology for a key engine component has sparked a burst of activity.
In Montreal, supplier Mark IV Automotive of Solvesborg, Sweden, plans to open its first North American manifold-producing plant by August. The company will invest $53.5 million by the year 2003 in the 176,400-square-foot facility.
At its Frankfort, Ky., plant, German supplier Montaplast of North America Inc. has added three injection molding/vibration welding lines. The company, collaborating with Troy, Mich.-based DuPont Automotive, produced the first welded manifold for a North American vehicle last year.
The story is similar for two other German suppliers: Mann+Hummel GmbH plans to launch its first North American welded manifolds later this year at a new plant in Portage, Mich. Siemens Automotive LP plans to do the same from plants in Telford and Windsor, Ontario.
``I think this trend was foreseen as soon as North American automakers started looking at plastic [manifolds],'' said James Riordan, president of Mann+Hummel's North American automotive division. ``But it's moving faster and, in some cases, more aggressively than what even we expected.''
The vibration-welded manifolds, sometimes called shell manifolds, are made by injection molding two clamshell halves from nylon 6/6 resin. The parts then are rubbed together under pressure, generating heat from vibration to fuse the parts.
European automakers started using the process sparingly in the early 1980s and ramped up to high-volume production around 1993. Today, about 52 percent of European plastic manifolds are welded, said Tom Currie, business development director for Mark IV's air-intake systems business unit, based in Rochester Hills, Mich.
The process competes against aluminum manifolds and nylon manifolds made by the lost-core process. Under lost core, the molded shell surrounds a shaped piece of tin bismuth, which is then melted out in a hot-oil bath.
The lost-core process is more time-consuming and costs as much as 40 percent more for capital equipment than does a welded part, Currie said. But lost core works best for complex shapes needed for some tight engine spaces, he said.
Currie's former company, Le Profil Engine Systems Co. of Orbey, France, was a pioneer in welded manifolds, he said.
``We've made [welded] manifolds in Europe since 1985, so it is not a new technology to us,'' Currie said. ``But the cost reductions with [the welding process] made it a necessity in Europe. The same is starting to happen here.''
That lure spurred Mark IV Automotive — owned by Mark IV Industries Inc. of Amherst, N.Y. — to acquire Le Profil in October 1997 and to bring the technology to North America. The company chose Montreal for its plant site to ease the transition of bringing in French engineers.
The plant will start with two injection presses with a clamping force of 800 tons and corresponding vibration-welding equipment, said Chet LaMay, senior OEM account manager for Mark IV's air-intake business unit. By early next year, the plant will employ 150.
Those numbers are bound to rise soon, he said. The company currently is developing a new engine design for an unspecified U.S. automaker and has three more contracts that will be launched by the year 2001, LaMay said. By 2003, plant sales are expected to total $43 million.
Some experts predict nylon manifolds to capture more than half the North American manifold market by 2005. Currently, only about 28 percent of manifolds are made of plastic, primarily using lost core, Currie said.
Montaplast opened its Kentucky plant in 1992. Initially, the plant made lost-core plastic manifolds and other parts. In the past three years, plant size has expanded from 75,000 up to 190,000 square feet.
The expansion included equipment to make North America's first welded manifolds, a project for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co., said Montaplast engineering director Michael Ellenbeck. The company installed three shell-manifold presses, with clamping forces as high as 1,000 tons.
Ford uses the welded manifolds on its 1999 F150 and F250 light trucks and Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles, Ellenbeck said. The manifolds are used with those vehicles' 5.4-liter, two-valve engines.
The supplier had only 14 months, a short window in the auto industry, to develop the manifolds. Borrowing its expertise from Europe, Montaplast eliminated the step of making prototype parts to save time, Ellenbeck said.
Meanwhile, DuPont used a newer, higher-temperature nylon 6/6 blend and offered in-house vibration-welding equipment and testing capabilities for the project.
``The key was being in the position to offer our best technology from the start,'' said DuPont senior manifold technical consultant Kenneth Nelson. ``We didn't want to lose any momentum.''
Now, Montaplast, based in Morsbach, Germany, has three more welded manifolds in production for U.S.-based automakers, Ellenbeck said. Those manifolds, for both Ford and DaimlerChrysler Corp., are due out in the next two years.
Ford, in particular, has moved quickly into welded manifolds. The carmaker plans to use both lost-core and welded manifolds for future platforms, said Peter Dowding, Ford program manager for the Triton engine used on the F-series trucks.
``We had been waiting for the new [welded] technology to come of age, and it has,'' Dowding said. ``Now, we have another manufacturing tool available to us as the need arises.''