Two Japanese auto suppliers and Toyota Motor Corp. have joined forces to create a new plastic fuel-tank maker with operations in Japan and California. The venture reflects a growing interest in plastic tanks by Asian-based automakers.
FTS Co. Ltd. is slated to launch production in Japan in August, while construction is under way for an FTS fuel-tank plant in Lathrup, Calif., with expected start-up in 2004.
Toyota owns 20 percent of FTS. Toyoda Gosei Ltd. is the biggest single partner in the joint venture with a 50 percent stake, while Horie Metal Co. Ltd. holds the remaining 30 percent.
None of the partners had experience as a plastic tank producer, although Toyoda Gosei of Nagoya, Japan, brings its expertise in molding interior trim, steering wheels and functional parts. Horie, based in Toyota City, Japan, has an extensive background in metal tanks, said Kim Moore, vice president of corporate planning for Toyoda Gosei North America.
``Because this is a new operation for all of us, we're looking at a lot of testing as we bring it on line,'' Moore said during a July 17 telephone interview.
Full details of the new operations were not immediately available, but the companies have estimated they will invest 1.5 billion yen ($12.9 million) to launch FTS, with sales expected to climb to 15 billion yen ($129 million) by the 2005 fiscal year.
FTS expects to have 100 employees this year and 260 by 2005.
Asian automakers have been slower to adopt plastic fuel tanks than their European and North American counterparts. For the 2000 model year, 87 percent of European-made vehicles had a plastic tank, while 65 percent of North American cars came with the multilayer resin tank, according to a study by ITB Group Ltd., a Novi, Mich.-based consulting firm.
But in Japan, only 10 percent of the tanks were plastic.
Japanese automakers are taking a serious look at plastic tanks, putting them in North American-produced cars and looking to further adoption of the systems at home, said Joel Kopinsky, a principal with ITB.
``Toyota, Nissan and Honda are moving aggressively towards plastic,'' he said.
The firms are seeking the same mixture of benefits from the tanks as other carmakers - lighter weight, the capability to mold more complex shapes and complete packaging capabilities that allow combination of valves, seals and other parts into one module.
``Plastic tanks are continuing to grow,'' Kopinsky said. ``The most dramatic growth will be in Japan, obviously because it doesn't take much to double production there when the numbers are already low.''
In the case of FTS, Toyota has a stake in the company to help it keeping a tighter control over what it deems an integral part of the overall vehicle. Such arrangements currently are more common in Japan than Europe or North America.
The new FTS operation will take into account strict regulations in California to reduce emissions, Moore said.