DETROIT — While some automakers and their biggest suppliers search for alternatives to PVC for major pieces of vehicle interiors, compounder A. Schulman Inc. is taking aim at the interior's smaller parts.
The company's new Invision material is an injection moldable polyolefin elastomer that can be used as a one-for-one replacement of PVC in armrests, console lids, assist handles and dozens of other small components, Jane Maselli, global marketing manager for auto interior systems, said March 6 during the product's introduction at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2001 World Congress in Detroit.
Fairlawn, Ohio-based Schulman will begin gearing up for full production this spring, while also meeting with automakers to get them on board with the resin.
Future introductions for Invision will be geared for blow molding and extruding, while Schulman also looks at ways to use it in larger parts.
Invision offers low gloss, low fogging, and good scratch and mar resistance with a soft texture, Maselli said.
Detroit-based General Motors Corp. spurred the move away from PVC two years ago when it announced it wants to find alternative materials for most interior surfaces.
The decision was based on both consumer dislike of vinyl and GM's interest in a smoother design, including elements such as a seamless instrument panel that hides the passenger-side air bag.
"Other than the initial costs [of new material development], there was no reason not to move away from PVC," said David Mattis, a GM materials engineering specialist.
Since then, suppliers including Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. have cited thermoplastic polyolefins as their top contender, and started production on TPO instrument panels for a variety of automakers.
Textron Automotive Co. Inc., also of Troy, has produced urethane-skin instrument panels.
"The demand for a soft touch, a soft feel is moving up," said Terry Anderson, director of research and development for Textron's automotive trim division. "Styling enhancements are the driver right now."
But the research into instrument panels and door panels is leaving smaller parts behind, Maselli said. Individual components such as handles and lids account for about 30 percent of the PVC-coated surfaces inside a car that are targeted for a material shift.
Schulman is not releasing any details on its new product yet, referring to it simply as a polyolefin elastomer. The company claims smaller molders that typically make individual components can continue using existing tools, reducing the cost of a material shift. Still, Invision is priced about 12 percent higher than PVC, according to the company.
All thermoplastic replacements for PVC carry a price premium, Anderson noted, with TPOs running about twice the cost and thermoplastic polyurethane starting at even higher prices.
But material costs are only part of the equation, he noted. Adding in a more expensive raw material in a completed instrument panel only increases the final production expense by about $5.
And, noted GM's David Reed, an engineer for North American production development, consumers may be willing to pay a few more dollars for something that looks better in the long run.
"We've been underselling our customers for years," he said. "Our customers are telling us they don't want `cheap plastic' interiors. We can change that."