Metal-stamping machines clang out with precision at Decoma International Inc.'s Mytox division facility in the northern Toronto suburbs, bending, shaping and forming running boards for trucks and sport utility vehicles.
For years, the company has produced stylish boards for the North American auto industry from the plant, with a metal structure typically covered by thermoplastic.
But now Decoma has invested C$10 million (US$6.4 million) in a composite running-board program that replaces the metal with a compression molded, glass-filled polypropylene. The replacement is lighter and cheaper than traditional systems and is gaining attention - and contracts - from automakers.
The composite running board is not the only plastics-intensive new product at the Concord-based company. At its nearby Co-Ex-Tec extrusion facility, Decoma has invested C$6 million (US$3.8 million) in a thermoplastic vulcanizate body sealing line. The new line is housed next to three traditional rubber extrusion machines.
``We're really building up the future of this company,'' Chief Executive Officer Alan Power said during a Sept. 4 overview of Decoma's new technology programs for analysts and the media, in Concord. ``We have a big focus on manufacturing and innovation.''
The company also is deep in research on all-composite pickup tailgates, paint replacement on body panels and integrated exterior lighting. Decoma is building complete front-end modules in Europe and looking for ways to import those programs into North America.
``We're not just a bumper manufacturer,'' said Chief Financial Officer Randall Smallbone. ``We're an exterior integrator.''
They are also, researchers quipped, ``plastics guys,'' anxious to see if their material expertise can offer something new to automakers.
Decoma launched the TPV extrusion line last year anticipating a major increase in thermoplastic body sealing programs as a replacement for rubber by automakers. Japanese automakers already have adopted TPV seals in glass run channels - locations with movable glass, such as windows.
In 1999, Japanese automakers used TPV in about 5 percent of the glass run channels. By last year, that figure had climbed to about 18 percent.
``In Japan, there has been a lot of interest,'' said Joel Kopinsky a principal with ITB Group Ltd., a Novi, Mich.-based consultant group that recently completed a study on sealing systems. ``North America, to a certain extent, appears to be the next growth area.''
Rubber replacement is not merely a simple whim, Kopinsky noted. Using TPV means re-engineering the specifications for a whole new kind of material - one that performs differently than the industry standard. Decoma's first TPV seal program is on the A pillar beam of Ford's 2003 Lincoln Navigator.
``They're introducing it very selectively and very carefully,'' he said.
But automakers are finding benefits that make those new standards worthwhile: less overall program costs, lighter weight, improved recyclability and greater opportunities to realign an established supplier base. Existing rubber-based suppliers are highly vertically integrated, producing their own material in-house from an exclusive formula, Kopinsky said.
Up and comers in the thermoplastic sealing side are teaming up with a variety of independent material suppliers - among them Decoma's research partner, Advanced Elastomer Systems - giving automakers more contract flexibility.
Decoma and its competitors already are receiving bid requests for entire TPV body seal programs for future models, said Terry Ball, president of the firm's trim group. By 2010, he said he expects thermoplastic alternatives to be used in about 20 percent of North American body sealing - a market totaling $2.5 billion to $3 billion annually.
``We didn't want to go out and invest a lot of money in the old technology, so that's why we're investing in TPV,'' Ball said.
While the raw material is cheaper in a rubber sealing system, the lower processing costs for thermoplastic results in a final product that is about 10 percent cheaper. The extrusion that takes three minutes for Decoma's rubber-based seals takes 45 seconds with TPV.
``The big driver [for automakers] is cost,'' Smallbone said. ``It's a better product at a better price.''
The composite running board is boasting the same kinds of benefits for automakers. The Mytox plant turns out nearly 2 million metal-based running boards annually, but added the 4,400-ton compression molding press this year to launch production of the all-composite unit.
The PP blend with 40 percent long-glass fiber still promises to withstand as much as 3,000 pounds of pressure - a mass that would distort metal boards - but reduces overall cost because it is molded with integrated brackets and supports.
Decoma executives are making few comments on the program so far, but noted its customer for the running boards is interested in installing them on more vehicles. If the product launch goes well, Decoma easily could add another two presses within a year.
Likewise, Ball said he expects TPV extrusion to double or triple within the next few years, making space for new lines at the existing Co-Ex-Tec facility.
``When we took a look at this, we saw that we had a financial and technical capacity that we could use and we wanted to integrate it into our operations,'' he said. ``We see some very strong growth coming in this area.''