Olefins remain at the core of automakers' material-selection discussions, but even companies that have led the drive away from PVC in interiors are keeping tabs on improvements in vinyl production.
Volkswagen AG's Audi group is using a PVC skin with new plasticizers that claim improved performance characteristics, while BASF Corp. also is marketing improved plasticizers for its material.
Those are developments worth watching, even for companies leading the search for alternatives.
``We're aggressively pursuing PVC-free interiors as a policy,'' said David Reed, staff project engineer for General Motors Corp., which rolled out its PVC-free efforts in 1999. ``But we're not living in a cave and we recognize that PVC is making an effort in this area.
``There are things that are going on. We certainly need to be sensitive to the competitive position and what's available.''
And GM is not alone in seeking out the benefits of new materials.
Olefins and thermoplastic olefin have gained steady ground in automotive interiors during the past three years, with thermoplastic polyolefins used for cover skins on instrument and door panels. Honda North America Inc. has inked a deal with Canadian General-Tower Ltd. to supply TPO skins for more than 400,000 2003 Accords. The Cambridge, Ontario-based automotive supplier also provides TPO for instrument panels in the Honda Civic.
Toyota Motor Corp. is investing in more slush-molded TPO skins for Japanese-made vehicles and looking at olefin-based retainers for structural components, said Michael Bernas, manager of the organic material group for Toyota's North American arm, who spoke during a Sept. 30 panel discussion at the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive TPO Global Conference in Dearborn.
Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, has a time frame and materials in mind for its interiors.
``Our long-term plan is olefins,'' said Mike Masserant, a materials engineer for Dearborn-based Ford. ``We have a five- to 10-year plan.''
German-American automaker DaimlerChrysler AG likewise wants to move toward more olefins, said Doug Peterson, material engineer for the company with headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., and Stuttgart, Germany. It has no specific time line, however.
Growth for TPOs will depend on the technical expertise suppliers can bring forward to come up with the final product customers want - whether it comes with a low or high gloss, provides scratch resistance, eliminates the paint shop or provides a seamless air-bag compartment.
``We're only as good as the materials we have to work with,'' said Peter Davis, director of interior strategy and quality for the GM design center.
Economic conditions, though, will mean that companies must find a way to provide those breakthroughs without large capital outlays, noted Rose Ryntz, manager of advanced materials engineering for Dearborn-based Visteon Corp.
``What's going to drive the industry is what's available from the equipment that is in place, the technology that is there,'' she said.
The focus on PVC alternatives does not necessarily come with a blank check, Reed said.
``We do have to maintain a competitive sensibility,'' he said. ``There is cost effectiveness as well.''