Farmers will do double-takes when they see the soon-to-be-launched Case IH AFX8010 farm combine, decked out with glossy red plastic body panels and a rounded, sleek look. Product designers are taking notice, too.
Gone is the squared-off metal body. But the decision by Case LLC to switch to reaction injection molded polyurethane structural foam for the exterior panels hardly was an easy one, said Jeff Halpin, Burr Ridge, Ill.-based project engineer for combine development.
``We went from steel to plastic, so there was a lot of second-guessing that went on: `What are you doing? Where are you going with this?' '' said Halpin, who works out of the crop harvesting unit for Case, which is owned by Italy's Fiat Group.
Case veterans were comfortable with steel. ``I'd like to bring more and more plastic into Case. There was a strong desire to just stay the course,'' he said.
The Case IH design team for the huge combine - which stands 15 feet high, 32 feet long, 17 feet wide, and weighs 38,000 pounds - won the Industrial Designers of America/Plastics News Design Award. The award was presented April 1 at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division annual conference in Nashville.
The body panels - molded by GI Plastek of Newburyport, Mass. - also won an SPD award in the agriculture/lawn and garden category, and earned a share of a three-way tie for the SPD People's Choice award, voted on by attendees. The PPD Molds Division of PPD Group Co. of Waterville, Quebec, made the nickel-shell tooling for the panels.
The large panels weren't the only things that impressed the IDSA/Plastics News judges. They praised all the plastic parts on the AFX8010 - including a console to the right of the driver's seat that makes it easy to operate the combine and a large rotating screen that keeps debris out of the engine air intake. The three IDSA member judges, who are separate from the SPD team that selects all the rest of the SPD awards, were impressed with the project's overall design harmony.
``It's the entire picture,'' said Brian Heidsiek, who runs Sandbox Industrial Design in Nashville. ``It grabs you. You get an emotional response.''
The IDSA judges looked at several elements, including manufacturability, human elements, aesthetics, materials and process optimization, technical merits and environmental responsibility. Now in limited production, the AFX 8010 will be introduced this fall.
GI Plastek makes the RIM PU structural foam body panels at its factory in DeWitt, Iowa. Using its ProTek in-mold coating process, the company molds the 12 exterior panels - the largest measuring more than 8 feet long by 6 feet wide - on a press with 600 tons of clamping force, very big for a RIM machine. Project officials claim the parts are the largest PU structural foam parts in production. Total weight of the urethane panels is 400 pounds less than their steel counterparts.
Halpin said RIM allowed for an in-mold, Class A, high-gloss finish. The finish stands up to impacts and resists scratching. Tooling costs are half the price of SMC tooling, officials said.
The PU resin is Bayer Corp.'s soybean-based Baydur 730S IBS. Case will market that fact in its advertisements to farmers, as each set of panels uses about two bushels of soybeans.
Halpin said the Case team originally wanted to use unsupported PU body panels.
``We wanted to push the plastic as far as we could, without using any frames or stiffeners.'' But farmers didn't like the fact that the panels moved when they pushed on them, so Case ended up adding some metal structural elements, he said.
GI Plastek's factory in Wolfeboro, N.H., uses gas counter-pressure structural foam molding to make the ABS driver's console and high-pressure structural foam to mold the round frame of the rotary air screen from glass-fiber-reinforced polypropylene.
GI Plastek ships the frame to Lewis Plastics Co. Inc. in Chicago, which overmolds the stainless-steel, fine-mesh screens with smaller plastic frames using a vertical injection press with a rotary table. The plastic frame/wire screen combination replaces an all-metal assembly. The combine's exterior panels may be sexier, but Crabb said the screen assembly, for which Case recently secured a patent, is the most groundbreaking change he has seen in his 30 years with the company.
The rotary screen first was used on a Case cotton-picking machine, and it slashed the need for cleaning from once a day to once a year. ``That plastic rotary screen, because of the cleaning efficiency of it, is just the biggest thing,'' said Richard Crabb, Case technical specialist in plastics and composites.
The IDSA judges were impressed with the ergonomics of the driver's console, which uses a joystick shifter complete with thumb-operated buttons. ``User research was well-integrated into this,'' said judge Terri Laurenceau, an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Eric Jacobsthal, an outside designer who runs Innovative Design Consulting in Elmhurst, Ill., was involved intimately in the combine's development. He said the team made plenty of models to test the controls with farmers.
Max Probasco of Probasco Design in Richardson, Texas, noticed details such as the seat-belt-equipped jump seat that would allow a child to ride along safely, and the padded floor in the cab.