DETROIT — Oakwood Group has a cost-saving plan to reduce the use of plastic foam in vehicle interiors.
The Dearborn, Mich., plastics and steel processor is producing a new, multimaterial energy absorber that fits into a plastic headliner or side pillar.
The product, called the SafetySteel energy absorber, merges a steel, lattice-shaped series of energy-absorbing ribs with a thermoformed plastic shell to hold it. The steel lattices also can be installed separately from the shell.
The product meets upcoming federal standards for head impact at a lower cost than injecting polyurethane foam into a headliner, said Phillip Carroll, manager of corporate development for the company's Oakwood Energy Management Inc. unit. Those standards will go into effect by September 2002.
``Energy absorbers today battle space vs. efficiency concerns,'' said Carroll, speaking June 8 at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo in Detroit. ``We found that our system can absorb a [large] amount of energy in a minimal amount of space.''
The product positions Oakwood as a player in overhead systems, a new area for the Tier 2 supplier. The company injection molds plastic speaker grilles, interior-trim parts, brackets and polyester pads.
In addition, Oakwood fabricates metal assemblies. The 54-year-old company started as a steel stamper before moving into plastics molding more recently.
The move into energy-absorbing parts could create an entirely new niche for the longtime supplier. Crafting a unique identity is becoming more important for smaller suppliers to compete, said Oakwood President Dick Audi.
Oakwood expects to record about $40 million in sales this year, Audi said.
``It's becoming harder to survive as a custom stamper or molder anymore,'' Audi said. ``We've decided to develop new technology that will give us an advantage in the market.''
The company already has several new customers for the steel strips, bonded in a zig-zag design onto a thermoformed, rectangular body cage made of polystyrene.
The energy absorbers will be used on year-2000 models for Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln LS luxury car, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Xterra sport utility vehicle, General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac Seville and DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s Neon, Carroll said.
The company also plans to produce a single energy-absorbing system made of polycarbonate or polypropylene. The system, patented this month, features a series of sunken, lidded cups molded into a thermoformed mat.
The all-plastic energy absorber will be used in less-rigid headliner or pillar applications, where the stiffness of steel is not needed, Carroll said.
Both products will be made at Oakwood's Taylor, Mich., plant.
The applications have advantages over current energy-absorbing solutions, which include semirigid PU foam, thermoplastic ribs and veins or aluminum coils inserted into a headliner, Carroll said. The steel parts do not shrink or warp during temperature extremes, offering the same performance under differing conditions, he said.
The parts also are lightweight and can be formed into quick samples, eliminating the need for more-expensive prototype tooling, Carroll added.
Cost is the part's main driver. The one-piece systems can be molded into a headliner by a Tier 1 supplier, eliminating an extra step of inserting foam into the finished part.
``We can do the same job for lower cost,'' Carroll said. ``That's the bottom line on why we're doing this.''