Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., regrouped automotive operations in a new business unit, Dow Automotive, in 1999. Dow Automotive's products include plastics, adhesives, sealants and acoustic systems for use in interior, exterior and chassis-powertrain components and systems. Sales in 2000 totaled $1.1 billion, and Europe accounts for 29 percent of volume.
This year, Dow Automotive doubled its adhesive, sealants and body-engineered systems business by buying Swiss supplier Gurit-Essex.
Dow Automotive President Lawrence Denton talked about the unit's ambitions with Automotive News Europe staff reporter Edmund Chew.
Q. What are your automotive customers interested in at the moment?
A. All the [automakers] are concentrating on safety, but at the same time they want their vehicles to be seen as sporty and functional. There is also strong concern about the environment. Everybody wants to be perceived as an environmental leader. One aspect of this is diesel emission legislation. Another is ELV [end-of-life vehicle] obligation.
Q. How do environmental issues affect you?
A. We are facing some really challenging issues here. Our No. 1 product is still plastics. The more plastic you use vs. metal, the better mileage you are going to get out of a vehicle. Today there are 250 pounds of plastic in the average vehicle, and we are not done. But the dilemma is that steel is easier to recycle than plastic, using conventional methods. Our goal is to develop plastic parts that save weight, while at the same time finding an efficient recycling solution.
Q. Have higher oil prices had an effect on your business?
A. Hydrocarbons are a key part of our raw material cost structure. But raw material cost is something that can be more than offset through systems approaches and innovation. For example, when we developed the structural instrument panel [with Textron Automotive and DaimlerChrysler Corp. on the Dodge Dakota], the panel itself had 50 percent fewer parts and eliminated a full crossbeam that weighed 30 pounds. The air-conditioning system got quieter, and the defrost time improved rapidly. Whether the price of that 30 pounds of plastic goes up 5 percent or 10 percent, it becomes insignificant when weighed against the savings and some of the more subtle benefits.
Q. How will the use of plastics change?
A. In the past, plastic parts were just aesthetic skins that, for example, replaced wooden door panels. The plastic itself did not perform an incremental function. We see that changing. Plastics of the future will have both structural and aesthetic characteristics to provide tooling and assembly efficiencies.
Q. What kind of products are you developing?
A. We have an energy-absorbing product called Strandfoam. It is being used on four vehicle programs and [automakers] are studying it for future usage.
Q. What kind of applications?
A. Headliners for energy absorption, for example. We will also see Strandfoam in future applications to address pedestrian impact legislation, to absorb the energy to reduce knee and head impact. It can be fabricated in various shapes and can be utilized in a wide range of applications. We also are doing research in the emissions area to support the need to reduce particulate matter in diesel engines.
Q. What else are you working on?
A. We are working on a polymer that illuminates. We are in the process of validating this. Using an illuminated polymer, we could, for example, reduce the thickness of a taillamp from 150 millimeters to 3mm. The customer gets improved trunk space, and it provides opportunities for leading-edge designs.
Q. How do your relationships with manufacturers work?
A. It isn't an easy process to provide innovation to [original equipment manufacturers], because they are large organizations. ... We have put a business organization in place to understand our customers' needs, with a technical resource that can go back into the scientific community to see what is available.
Q. How are you bringing innovations to the market?
A. Innovations come in various ways, depending on the application. Increasingly, we are going to see teams that include Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers and [OEMs] working together.
Q.How is this different from the way you have worked before?
A. As a traditional material supplier, we would have just sold the product by the pound for the customer to use as they saw fit. Today's strategy is more beneficial to all parties involved.