The plastics industry is out to change its image in the auto business - from that of a series of sniping competitors vying for the next contract, to a cohesive unit making a lasting impact on the production of cars and trucks.
And with the release of the American Plastics Council's ``Vision and Technology Roadmap,'' at the Management Briefing Seminars held Aug. 5-9, the industry also is out to influence the next generation of auto manufacturers and designers.
``We're here and we plan to be a part of the auto industry for a long time,'' said project leader Mike Fisher.
APC President Rod Lowman officially introduced the roadmap to some of the auto industry's decision makers Aug. 8 in Traverse City.
``If the automotive and the plastics industry do not adapt to change and do not cooperate, we will simply be implementing the luge strategy,'' Lowman said. ``That is, lie flat, hang on and try not to die.''
The organization and its members - with contributors including automakers General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG; raw material suppliers DuPont, Dow Chemical Co., Basell Polyolefins and GE Plastics; and molders Delphi Corp., Visteon Corp. and Lear Corp. — spent more than two years studying the biggest demands facing the industry during the next 20 years. The committee considered exterior issues such as paint replacement, and interior design to improve energy absorption in a crash. It looked at recycling and how best to encourage designers to become more familiar with plastics.
``We're not trying to whitewash the challenges facing us by any means,'' Fisher said.
Arlington, Va.-based APC did present major goals, though. The 52-page document focuses on making plastics the material of choice in design for all major automakers by 2020. Members want decision makers to envision the prospect of an all-plastic vehicle.
``Up until now, plastics has been used as a substitute for metal,'' said Bruce Cundiff, automotive director for the plastics council. ``We need to take a clean-slate approach to how we're designing with plastics.'' Cundiff is based at APC's automotive learning center in Troy, Mich.
The roadmap does not differentiate between resins. Neither does it try to interfere with products that are nearly ready for market launch. Individual companies still will pursue that work.
It does look at some major elements: new applications, faster movement to the marketplace, manufacturing infrastructure improvements, and long-term-sustainable and environmentally friendly strategies.
Cooperative efforts, such as encouraging more graduate polymer science programs at universities nationwide, will help. So will sponsorship of styling competitions at top automotive design schools. Researchers must focus on predicting how plastics will behave throughout a 15-year life cycle in a car, the group said.
APC will update the plan continually to recognize accomplishments and new challenges, Fisher said.
Committee members do not expect to eliminate metal. Steel, aluminum, magnesium and alloys always will have their place, but as the industry considers new drive-train technologies including fuel cells and hybrids, it also will have a chance to rethink the vehicle as a whole.
That opens the door for potential changes to the way cars are made.
Just consider the inroads plastics has made so far, from one or two components in the 1960s to an average of 250 pounds of plastics in each vehicle.
``We think the time is right here to make a statement,'' Fisher said. ``The [automakers] recognize that we're moving toward the future.''
The auto industry's outreach to new markets in developing countries also opens potential pathways, Lowman noted. Those nations may not have large metal-bending infrastructures already in place, making it possible for plastics to take on low-volume, lightweight production status.
``In reality, we are the new kid on the block, but we're growing,'' he said.