Owens Corning is looking to expand plastics' presence on cars through the tailpipe.
Various automakers already are testing the concept of a composite muffler that would replace steel, allowing not only a rust-proof muffler, but also one that could be molded into a variety of shapes or even integrated into existing under-body components.
``The driver behind the composite muffler is not just a matter of replacing metal for plastic,'' said Dick McKechnie, business director for Owens Corning Automotive, during a May 30 open house at the Toledo, Ohio-based company's new automotive center in Novi.
Instead car companies could bend and shape a muffler around the existing real estate under the vehicle, incorporating it in a wheel well, a heat shield or even a bumper beam. Composites could re-configure the image of a muffler much as plastic fuel tanks did on their introduction.
``Why is the muffler cylindrical? Because that's the easiest way to bend the metal,'' McKechnie said. ``Their entire system is based on bashing metal.''
Even in the developmental stage, the company is pointing to a composite piece that could cut the weight of a 20-pound metal part in half.
The muffler concept is part of Owen Corning's increased focus on the auto industry, which concentrates on four potential applications areas: exterior acoustic systems, interior acoustics, closures - including tailgates, hoods and deck lids - and structures, which would take in pickup beds, front- and rear-end modules, instrument panels and running boards.
``Each product segment has to be approached in a different way,'' McKechnie said.
The firm will work with automakers and suppliers to get its products into vehicles, said Andrew Hopkins, general manager of the company's composite solutions business. True breakthroughs, he said, will come when the companies can find ways to combine new technology with performance improvements and cost cuts.
``The car industry has a very fine dividing line between what is profitable and what is not profitable,'' Hopkins said. ``Economics are going to be the driver of the product.''
Within the composite muffler concept, the company would combine a glass-filled-composite outer package with its Silentex sound-absorption material already used in some standard steel mufflers.
Composite components will not make an immediate move into the marketplace, Hopkins noted. Even if automakers buy into the proposal, they must make their way to designers laying out future cars. But there is interest.
The biggest hurdle for now is convincing the auto industry that it can reconsider the performance standards written with metal in mind, he said. Even the shape of today's system is designed around the benefits and limitations of steel.