FLINT, MICH. — Two months into a joint venture with a German company, the machines at American Commodities Inc. are tearing through scrap instrument panels shipped in from two Visteon Automotive Systems manufacturing sites. Using the technology developed by Wipag Polymer Technique of Neuberg, Germany, American Commodities grinds up the panels, then runs them through a proprietary process that ACI Chief Executive Officer Mark Lieberman will only say "liberates and separates" the three plastics fused together.
Boxes lined up on the factory floor are filled with the separated remains of the panels — the styrene maleic anhydride substrate, foam and vinyl exterior — on their way through the recycling line.
With Ford Motor Co. subsidiary Visteon already bringing in the instrument panels in a post-industrial recycling program, Lieberman is looking to the day his Flint-based company attracts more business with the technique.
"The technology is brilliant," Lieberman said. "It's a completely different approach to sorting of material."
The process even works on door panels, he said, separating out the substrate, foam, vinyl and textile inserts.
"The importance of this on a global supply base is enormous," Lieberman said.
Wipag's instrument panel program already has been in use in Europe for the past four years, with automakers such as Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and General Motors Corp.'s Vauxhall Motors subsidiary now recycling scrap panels at Neuberg and Kent, England. The process returns the materials to a 99.98 percent purity state, at a cost savings of about 30 percent over virgin material, Lieberman said.
The joint venture, called ACI Wipag, brings the process into North America, with its first line in place in Flint and a second 60,000-square-foot recycling facility set to open later this year in Grand Blanc, Mich. The Flint ACI venture will continue to focus on recycling exterior pieces, such as bumpers.
The companies expect to seal an alliance with a Japanese recycler later this year to expand the program to Asia, and they are seeking another partner in South America.
Several companies are investigating the best way to recycle the parts, involving a variety of plastics. They especially are interested in European governments expected to sign a law sometime this year forcing carmakers to increase the recyclability of their vehicles, said Gerald Winslow, vehicle recycling partnership programs manager for DaimlerChrysler AG.
DaimlerChrysler has had units looking into various systems both in Europe and the United States, he said. It is not working with ACI Wipag, although the automaker has dealt with American Commodities on past projects.
"Right now, we feel [the possibilities] of a law in Europe definitely is on the high side," Winslow said. "I'd put it at 90 percent or better."
That means automakers and recyclers alike must prepare.
Convincing automakers to ship rejected or damaged panels to Flint for recycling is only part of the program's acceptance, Lieberman said. To make the effort really work, designers and builders need to produce parts that are easy to disassemble in the scrap yard at the end of a vehicle's life.
"No one is going to take 30 minutes [taking apart] an 8-ounce piece of plastic," Lieberman said.