DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is considering plastic composites for the pickup boxes on its entire truck lineup. "We're making an evaluation of alternate materials for every model," said Deepak Kapur, vehicle line director, during a March 7 interview at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2000 World Congress in Detroit.
That assessment includes all-new Ford full-size pickups and sport utility vehicles, including such popular vehicles as the Ford Ranger and F-series pickup trucks, Kapur said.
The use of plastic is a recent phenomenon for pickup boxes. In the past eight months, the Dearborn, Mich.-based carmaker has started using composite boxes on its Ford Explorer Sport Trac.
The boxes, made with sheet molding compound, include the trucks' cargo area, side panels and, in some cases, the tailgate.
Ford's new Excursion SUV also uses SMC for the rear doors and liftgate. The material also is used on the fenders for Ford's new F-Series Super Crew Cab and the door panels on its Lincoln Blackwood.
The use of SMC works best with annual car volumes of under 200,000 vehicles, Kapur said. He spoke at an SAE news briefing sponsored by the Automotive Composites Alliance. At that volume, tooling costs are lower than with steel, he said.
Ford is exploring the production of more niche vehicles, even within its most popular models. "Composites could fit there," he said during the interview.
Ford's decision could accelerate the already rapid growth of automotive composites. ACA of Troy, Mich., forecast the use of reinforced thermoset composites to increase 43 percent during the next four years — from 325.8 million pounds this year to an expected 467 million pounds by 2004.
A majority of that growth will come from new pickup-box applications, said alliance Chairman Michael Dorney. In the past, composites have been used extensively in such areas as hoods, deck lids and grille opening reinforcements.
Detroit-based General Motors Corp. also has taken a lead role in composite truck boxes. It offers an extended-cab Chevrolet Silverado with an optional plastic box and will launch in January its Chevy Avalanche pickup-sport utility hybrid composite panels.
GM has favored the use of reaction injection molded polyurethane for its boxes.
Tooling costs for composites are half that of steel pickup boxes, and the vehicles are at least 20 percent lighter in weight, Kapur said.
The industry will first have to deal with some short-term disarray among the few pickup-box processors. Cambridge Industries Inc., a maker of the GM boxes, announced in late February that was seeking buyers after undergoing a financial crunch.
Several possible bidders have walked through facilities at the debt-laden company since the announcement, said marketing vice president John Sieg at the press briefing.
Troy, Mich.-based Budd Co. has said it would step in if needed to keep production moving on pickup boxes and other products. However, Cambridge, based in Madison Heights, Mich., has not yet needed Budd to assume the work, Sieg said.
Ford also has some challenges urging consumers to move to plastic pickup boxes, Kapur said. Those hardest to convince are career-centered pickup buyers — such as construction workers and farmers — who like steel's perceived strength, he said.
"We still haven't weaned them off long-kept thoughts and perceptions [about plastic]," Kapur said during the briefing. "We have some work to do."