Cie. Plastic Omnium SA plans to produce one of the automotive industry's first energy-absorbing bumper beams made entirely of composites.
The beam's design will allow the company to eliminate foam, a material often used as an impact-resistant buffer between a bumper's inner beam and outer fascia.
At the same time, the new beams will help Plastic Omnium convert some existing bumper substrates from metal to plastics. Today, more than 90 percent of bumper beams worldwide are made from steel or aluminum, according to industry estimates.
The new beams are strong enough to rival metal products and still avoid the use of foam, helping to cut production costs and weight, said Pascal Bardet, engineering director at Plastic Omnium's North American headquarters in Rochester Hills, Mich.
The company plans to introduce the beams on an unspecified North American car model in production next year, Bardet said. Plastic Omnium, based in Levallois, France, has similar plans for a European vehicle due out by 2001.
``Our target is not really to produce a plastic system, but to develop a complete portfolio of technologies,'' Bardet said. ``Our customers can choose which ones make the most sense for their vehicles. The more we have to offer them, the more flexible we are.''
The composite bumper beam project took four years and involved two French-based material suppliers: resin maker Appryl, an affiliate of Elf Atochem SA of Puteaux; and Vetrotex France SA, a producer of glass fibers based in Chambery.
The hybrid material, called Twintex, blends polypropylene with continuous-woven glass fibers reinforced with long or chopped fibers. The material is stronger than Shelby, N.C.-based Azdel Inc.'s chopped-fiber polypropylene, a competing bumper-beam composite resin, Bardet said.
Besides being as much as 20 percent lighter than metal beams, the Twintex material also allows Plastic Omnium to integrate other bumper-beam parts with the finished product. The supplier molds spoiler supports and flanges and ribs into the injection molded beam, instead of making each piece separately.
The beams recently won the Composites Solution Award in the transportation category at the European Composites Show, held in Paris in April.
The material also can be used for other structural parts, such as dashboards and body exterior parts, Bardet said.
In Europe, Plastic Omnium already is using similar materials to make composite beams, which are used on the new Xantia car, sold only in Europe by PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA. The beams, mixing PP with long-glass fibers, are made by the compression extrusion process at a Plastic Omnium plant in Guichen, France.
The supplier still must decide which North American plant will make the new bumper parts, Bardet said. The decision will be based on upcoming customer programs.
Currently, the company molds bumper fascias at plants in Anderson, S.C., and Puebla, Mexico.
The company plans to open two new plants in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, by the end of the year, Bardet said. One plant will make exterior systems, including bumpers, while the other will concentrate on coextruded plastic fuel tanks.
A third Ramos Arizpe plant will make car tailgate parts from sheet molding compound in a joint venture with Inoplast SA of St. Desirat, France. The Inoplast Omnium plant is scheduled to open by the middle of 2000.
The three plants initially will serve General Motors Corp., which has a nearby assembly facility. The Puebla plant makes bumper fascias for Volkswagen AG.
Plastic Omnium recorded $1.49 billion in 1998 sales. In May, the company agreed to sell its worldwide interiors business to Dearborn, Mich.-based Visteon Automotive Systems for $492 million.
After the sale was announced, Plastic Omnium officials said they wanted to focus future operations on growing core exterior and fuel-tank business. The new bumper beams spur growth in that direction with new technology, Bardet said.
The company also is developing blow molded bumpers, along with competitors such as Visteon and Carlisle Engineered Products Inc.