DETROIT—Uncle Sam has opened a multimillion-dollar business opportunity for automobile safety, and plastics companies are lining up for a piece of the action. Auto suppliers are looking to plastics such as polypropylene, polystyrene and polyurethane to provide the padding needed to comply with federal safety standards. The standards, which are being phased in, require padding in certain areas of the car where a head could collide with steel structures.
"Right now we have an immediate need," said Andy Matuszynski, program manager for Woodbridge Group's automotive products group.
Woodbridge, Dow Chemical Co.'s automotive division and Oakwood Group all featured energy absorbers in their displays at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo, held May 16-18 in Detroit.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Oakwood Group is about to break ground on a new, 150,000-square-foot facility in Taylor, Mich., to support anticipated growth in its new SafetyPlastic, thermoformed from PP and 20 percent talc-filled PP.
The unit will add about 100 workers to its 300-employee base, said Phillip Carroll III, Oakwood director. He declined to say how much the factory will cost.
"We're seeing an awful lot of activity," he said.
Each of the programs is based on a federal standard for occupant safety that now requires 25 percent of all vehicles in the United States to provide head impact protection.
By 2002, nearly all U.S. cars must have the protection in place, said Travis L. Sessions, business manager for Southfield, Mich.-based Dow Automotive. That translates to sales opportunities on more than 15 million cars produced annually.
Dow introduced its extruded PP-based Strandfoam impact protection at the expo.
The federal requirement focuses on a few spots in the car where a person's head could hit during a crash, specifically at points near the steel structure.
The energy-absorption pieces are placed between the trim and the structure along pillars, headliners and other key sites. The government requires companies to test the pieces by firing a 10-pound dummy head at it at 15 mph, Sessions said.
The pieces must absorb the energy of the impact to a set level before they collapse. They must be strong enough to meet federal standards, but thin enough so they don't take away from interior space.
Each company's system works by cushioning the head, but still maintaining a rigid structure.
Dow's Strandfoam has a honeycomb structure that will compress before it eventually breaks apart. It already is on 2000 Dodge and Plymouth Neon vehicles.
Oakwood's hollow plastic cone also can withstand pressure before collapsing. It is slated for future use in the Neon and the Oldsmobile Silhouette.
Woodbridge cites its PU and expanded PS-based Enerflex foam's ability to stand up to an impact coming from any angle. The company has contracts with all of the major North American manufacturers, Matuszynski said.
"All of us are working on a different way to do this," he said. "The bottom line comes down to price for the [original equipment manufacturer]."
All of the suppliers note their materials are lightweight and recyclable.
Oakwood introduced a metal-based energy absorber a year ago, SafetySteel, but SafetyPlastic can provide adequate protection at less cost. The company is considering other materials for future use, Carroll said.
Oakwood also is considering other uses for SafetyPlastic, in everything from packaging to football helmets.
For now, though, demand from the auto industry will keep the business at full speed, he said.
"That's about as much as we can chew for now," Carroll said.