By the late 1980s, plastics could flash a victory sign and claim that steel had succumbed on some major areas of a vehicle.
For cars and trucks both, plastics finally was prevalent in a vehicle's interior, from instrument panels to rear package trays; and in a body's exterior, especially for bumper fascias and rear signal lighting.
In 1990, when the first Saturn Corp. models came out, the transition was made more legitimate. Those Saturns were among the first high-volume vehicles to use — and market well — an abundance of plastic body panels.
Yet one area was missing, a void in an otherwise crowded universe of plastic parts. So far in North America, suppliers' attraction to plastics had been only skin-deep.
``Most of the parts were already converted elsewhere,'' said Boney Mathew, president of Troy, Mich.-based Mathson Industries Inc., a consultant to plastic parts suppliers. ``About the only area left was the powertrain.''
Since then, the emergence of plastic fuel tanks in North America has become one of the industry's major success stories. Today, virtually every new car or light-truck platform is fitted with a plastic tank.
At the same time, such engine-related parts as air-intake manifolds, valve and cam covers, fuel and brake lines, and accelerator pedals have started a slow conversion to plastic.
Yet suppliers had to sweat a bit to get where they are now. Fuel-tank suppliers such as Walbro Corp. of Cass City, Mich.; Kautex Corp. of Windsor, Ontario; and Solvay Automotive Inc. of Troy, Mich., invested in plants and equipment long before U.S. automakers had given the green light.
``There was a crying need for new technology,'' said Daniel Hittler, chief administrative officer with Walbro. ``We had to build production facilities to show that we'd be ready to make tanks. But — and it's no secret in the industry — we expected the ramp-up [by automakers] to go much faster than it did.''
Meanwhile, outside the auto industry, plastics was making headway vs. other materials in the 1990s.
Take refrigerators, dishwashers and washers and dryers. The interiors of most of those bulky home appliances — barring some high-end applications — have moved to thermoplastics. Outdoor patio furniture, aerospace parts, boat hulls and decks, car cups, and pallets and containers also are making the transition,
The same can be said for the electronics industry, in which plastics growth has kept pace with computers' popularity. Today, lightweight computer housings, cell phones and even telephone interface devices placed outside every home have gone plastic.
Sometimes, the evolution has been gradual. In the food industry, the conversion to plastic grocery bags actually started in 1977, when the first polyethylene bags were introduced, according to the Film and Bag Federation, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
But in the past decade, a new, lower-weight, high density PE material has created explosive growth. Today, more than 90 percent of grocery bags are plastic, compared with about 12-17 percent in 1984, said Ron Schmieder, director of strategic planning with Sonoco Products Co. of Hartsville, S.C., and a member of the Film and Bag Federation's executive committee.
``Paper was always a target for plastics,'' Schmieder said. ``But we were always a bit higher in price. When the industry came up with a strong material that was also thinner, plastic became a lot cheaper than paper. That gave us a dominant position.''
Nowhere has the struggle to accept plastics been more dramatic than in the auto industry.
In Europe, French and Italian carmakers moved in a rush during the 1980s to make monolayer fuel tanks, blow molded from HDPE. But in the United States — where carmakers had invested millions in steel stamping plants — the move was made much more cautiously, according to Doug Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for Solvay Automotive.
``Steel had an image of strength and investment in place that we had to contend with,'' Smith said.
And, though plastic tanks gradually were gaining acceptance through the 1980s, the Clean Air Act of 1990 stopped suppliers in their tracks. The federal act, which was to be phased in starting in 1996, set stricter evaporative emissions standards for fuel systems.
Suddenly, everyone began questioning plastic fuel tanks, said John Thorn, fuel-systems technical specialist for regulatory and compliance issues with Dearborn, Mich.-based Visteon Automotive Systems. Single-layer fluorinated tanks would not pass the new federal standards.
The problem was, neither would existing steel tanks, Thorn said. So the industry began looking at alternatives, including stainless-steel or nylon-coated aluminum tanks.
By 1991, a solution was found: coextruded, six-layer HDPE fuel tanks with a layer of ethylene vinyl alcohol to prevent hydrocarbon permeation.
Suppliers decided to push the envelope. In 1992, Visteon started building a $5 million fuel-tank site in Milan, Mich., that included a test laboratory and a double-shuttle blow molding machine. Walbro, Solvay and Kautex also opened plants and installed equipment in the early 1990s, while Paris-based supplier Cie. Plastic Omnium SA started North American operations in December 1995.
It was a gamble, Thorn said. A coextrusion machine and secondary equipment cost a supplier at least $4 million each. Suppliers, most notably Walbro, struggled with limited fuel-tank sales to go with major capital investment.
But the gamble paid off. Today, about 40 percent of all U.S.-built vehicles on the road have plastic fuel tanks, with that number expected to rise to more than 60 percent by 2001, Thorn said.
The automotive industry no longer looks askance at plastics. The landscape has changed, according to James Keeler, automotive marketing manager with resin supplier Montell Polyolefins of Troy, Mich.
``We had the change from metals to plastics 10 or 15 years ago,'' Keeler said. ``Now, we're seeing constant shifts from one type of plastic to another. It's become more of an intra-material competition.''