North America's biggest maker of steel bumpers for commercial trucks and buses is moving into plastics.
Hendrickson International of Woodridge, Ill., is teaming up with Delphi Automotive Systems to produce the first all-composite bumper for big rigs.
If the technology agreement works out, both companies anticipate structural composites taking a bigger slice of the large truck and passenger car markets.
"We're treating this as an entry product," Ray Atchinson, director of marketing and business development for Hendrickson, said in a Jan. 4 telephone interview.
The companies are marketing the carbon fiber and glass fiber composites to truck designers now, with plans to begin production later this year.
Hendrickson now does about 90 percent of the steel truck-bumper production in North America, producing about 300,000 parts per year, giving it a wide range of potential customers. The companies declined to forecast how many of those bumpers will switch to composites.
Some trucks have plastic fascias over metal bars, but there is no all-plastic system in use in the truck market now, said Jeff Zawacki, marketing product development manager for Hendrickson.
"Hendrickson is a very innovative company," said Jay Batten, chief engineer of advanced manufacturing engineering for Delphi. He also heads up the Troy, Mich.-based company's "center of excellence" for automotive composites.
"They see this composite bumper as allowing them to take an advanced technology lead."
The two companies will work together on the composite program, marrying Delphi's materials research and production with Hendrickson's commercial truck expertise.
Representatives would not discuss details of the business deal but said Delphi will mold parts based on Hendrickson's designs.
Composites offer a wealth of benefits to truck designers and fleet owners, Atchinson said.
The concept bumpers Delphi and Hendrickson have developed weigh less than 20 pounds — less than half the weight of Hendrickson's lightest model, its stainless steel and aluminum "Aero-Clad" system. That is a big selling point for truck owners anxious to conserve fuel and haul heavier loads.
The composites resist corrosion, and engineers can mold in brackets and connections for extra lights or other exterior parts.
Hendrickson and Delphi also can deliver a complete bumper at less cost than traditional parts, thanks to less expensive molds, delivery and reduced labor costs. Atchinson declined to say exactly how much of a price difference there is.
But one of the biggest selling points is the design flexibility within a composite system
"There's a certain machismo to a truck. This material lets us be big, bold and macho without adding to weight," Atchinson said. "Right now, a truck designer is constrained by the material. The engineer now is saying `I can bring up a whole new universe of designs."'
In turn, an eye-catching truck design can help fleet owners attract and retain qualified drivers, he said.
"Differentiation is the name of the game in heavy-duty trucks," he said.
There are no crash standards for truck bumpers. The only requirement is that trucks have some kind of a bumper in place, Atchinson said. But truck drivers and fleet owners want something with enough structural integrity to stand up to the use and abuse vehicles receive over thousands of miles on the road.
"Traditional resins were just too flimsy, without [extra] molding or braces and brackets," he said. "This is for people who want the benefits of resin production but need a heavy duty structural bumper that is heavy enough for a guy to stand on and clean the bugs off the windshield."
Even steel bumpers have trouble withstanding the rigors of the road, typically lasting for about a year, Atchinson said. Hendrickson's steel and aluminum system is guaranteed for five years.
"With this carbon composite, we can go even lighter and have all the benefits of a long life," Atchinson said.
Delphi originally developed the structural composite for a steering column but found it could not compete with the cost of other materials, Batten said. The company was anxious to use the development elsewhere.
Delphi has other composite programs in production but not with the carbon- and glass-filled material, he said.
At the same time, Hendrickson wanted to bring new materials into the market, Atchinson said.
"We knew that Delphi was doing a lot of things in carbon fiber-based composites, so we gave them a call and said let's see if this works," he said.
Both firms anticipate expanding the composite program into other structural components, in trucks, trailers and the auto industry, although they are not talking about specific targets.
"We've made really big things out of really heavy stuff in the past," Atchinson said. "We're really changing that."