DETROIT — A radically new way to build vehicles with plastic modules is likely to be used in Europe within three years, its developer said.
Plastic Omnium SA, a Paris-based parts maker, is showing car companies a concept that divides the front end of a vehicle into four large modules.
The new assembly method, called the Omnium System Car — or ``Oscar'' — will be ``partly'' used on a high-volume European vehicle by late 2002, said Matt Orlando, North American engineering manager for Plastic Omnium in Rochester Hills, Mich.
Orlando, who discussed the Oscar project during the SAE '99 show this month in Detroit, would not identify the vehicle maker.
Plastic Omnium says the modular approach can cut vehicle weight 15-33 pounds, reduce crash repair bills and slice 15 minutes off vehicle assembly time.
By using an all-plastic front end, Plastic Omnium hopes to overcome a key limit of the material in automotive body construction: material expansion caused by temperature changes.
To date, plastic body panels have been developed chiefly as replacements for steel. But, when mated to sheet-metal parts, the plastic panels can create large gaps or even butt up against the steel as the plastic expands and shrinks in severe weather conditions.
That has given plastic a bad rap in some quarters, Orlando concedes. Some past projects were done with the ``best of intentions, but maybe [were] poorly executed,'' he said.
By going to an all-plastic front end, Plastic Omnium says it can control the expansion of materials to minimize or eliminate gap problems and conflicts with steel parts. In essence, the plastic parts move in concert.
New assembly techniques are helping. In recent years, manufacturers and suppliers have developed better fastening techniques to control that effect. For example, Plastic Omnium supplies the fenders and bumper covers for Volkswagen's New Beetle. Attachments let the plastic expand so that it does not interfere with steel body panels, an effect that the supplier refers to as the ``floating skin.''
Plastic Omnium has plenty of experience with vehicle skin. The company makes plastic fenders and bumper covers for such vehicles as the New Beetle, the Renault Clio and the Rover Freelander. To date, it has completed 10 plastic-fender projects, all as replacements for steel.
The Oscar project calls for the off-line assembly of two corner modules, a center cooling module and a cover module that has a fixed hood and a large cowl piece with a lift-up cover. Plastic fenders, smaller than those usually seen on vehicles, can be attached to the body structure and passed through the standard painting process. The modules then are loaded with components and attached to the vehicle's steel frame during final assembly.
Items that could be fitted within a corner module include the headlamp, washer bottle, cooling duct, horn, battery, air filter, radiator and intercooler and a variety of electronics.
The Oscar approach can be used in existing assembly plants. What's more, Plastic Omnium said, the modular construction is well-suited for a future in which high-volume, global vehicle platforms will have to be modified for regional tastes.
As for repairability, Orlando contends that the modular approach will provide added benefits compared with today's steel-bodied vehicles. Plastic body panels resist minor dings and dents. Dividing the front end into four modules also can limit damage to those sections. And the design of the modules can place expensive components, such as lighting or electronics, out of harm's way.
But, in an interview, Orlando conceded the vehicle industry will have to pretty much start from scratch to understand how Oscar behaves in a crash. New computer simulation techniques will help build that understanding. Steel, however, has maintained its dominant position not only because of its low cost but also because it is familiar: The auto industry understands what happens to sheet metal in a crash.
``We will have to teach them plastics,'' Orlando said of manufacturers.
The Oscar project ``exploits fully the potential of plastics,'' he added. But Plastic Omnium also knows that overturning time-tested methods of vehicle construction and assembly won't happen overnight.
Said Orlando: ``I think there will have to be a lot of intermediate steps. We're going to have to do this slowly.''