Three years ago, when John Opfer was a senior at Detroit's College for the Creative Studies, he participated in the first automotive design project at the school to be sponsored by the plastics industry.
Now he is an up-and-coming designer at DaimlerChrysler AG in Auburn Hills, Mich., who has used lessons learned in class on real-life concept cars that could make it on the road in coming years.
So as the American Plastics Council sponsored its second design program at the college, it had even more reason to believe that it could influence the look and feel of future cars and trucks.
``We've been ... talking to the school about what else we can do to introduce these designers both to materials and processing,'' said APC President Rod Lowman during a May 9 reception for the 2003 design project at the Detroit college.
Most of the 19 seniors participating in the program are seeking posts now at auto industry design shops. As they take on their professions, they come with new information about how they can use thermoplastics and composites on everything from high-end sports cars to off-road buggies.
Each year a different company or organization sponsors the design program for automotive designers. If a specific automaker, such as Ford Motor Co., backs it, the students must come up with a Ford vehicle.
With the plastics industry on board, students said they not only were free to explore ways to use the material, they also could draw on the design cues from a cross-section of carmakers.
``As soon as they told us that we could do anything we wanted, as long as it implemented the idea of what plastics could do, everything was open,'' said Steven McCabe, who drew on a 1930s-era Audi for his car integrating polycarbonate and other thermoplastics.
Scott Anderson took inspiration from the 1930s luxury vehicles produced by Auburn Automobile Co., creating a roadster with curving fenders and tinted polycarbonate windows. He also designed a system to mold in a series of golf ball-like dimples to channel the air flow.
``You simply couldn't do that in sheet metal,'' he said.
Processing techniques also came to play in Erik Holmen's Infinity brand concept, which would rely on thermoforming to produce exterior panels.
``Plastics can go into almost anything,'' said Adrian Goring, who based his upscale concept on a Mercedes-Benz style. ``People are beginning to have another concept of plastics when they see the shapes and curves of everyday things like computers.''
APC expects to get real results from the designers going forward. Elements of Opfer's BMW concept created for his senior project at CCS carried over into his Dodge M-80 concept truck - a design that is a favorite at auto shows and rumored as a future production vehicle for DaimlerChrysler.
Opfer also put his plastics knowledge to work on the interior of Chrysler's 300C concept vehicle, which debuted in April in New York. Rather than mimicking the look of wood grain in interior accents, it instead uses tortoise-shell patterns, playing to the material's strengths and the public's acceptance of the tortoise-shell look molded into everything from cosmetic containers to eyeglasses.
``You need to pick up on design cues that are authentic to the plastics you're using,'' he said. ``Look for something that plastics does very well, and use it. You've got to be smart about it.''