Mayco Plastics Inc. is banking that the next automotive revolution will begin in its back room.
In a space at the far southeast end of its injection molding complex in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, Mayco employees are preparing to launch full vertical production of bumper fascias for DaimlerChrysler AG, using a paint-replacement system developed by a team of suppliers.
Following a brief launch of the fascia in 2002 - with Mayco extruding and thermoforming the skin and the carmaker injection molding fascia - Mayco will take on full production of the systems during the second quarter of this year.
Mayco has installed two 3,000-ton presses in Sterling Heights that previously were used by the German-American automaker and at its Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant. The Chrysler program, developed along with A. Schulman Inc., ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Mayco and toolmaker Build-A-Mold Ltd., replaces the paint with an ionomer-based color and topcoat in the thermoformed skin, chemically linked to a thermoplastic olefin substrate.
It is not the only paint-replacement player in the auto industry, however.
Nearly all automakers - both traditional North American players and overseas-based ``new domestics'' - are paying attention to the in-mold exterior decorating systems, and looking to their molders to do the same, suppliers and industry consultants said. The Society of Plastics Engineers hosted a technical conference on paint replacement in February that was expected to draw 250 people. More than 500 turned out.
``That says something about what's going on out there,'' said Jay Waddell, managing partner of Plastic Concepts & Innovations LLC, a Mount Pleasant, S.C., company that is consulting with injection molders, thermoformers and automakers as the industry takes more interest in the technology.
``It's a whole new world out there, and it's an unbelievable world.''
The interest and need for education is crossing multiple firms, he said. Automakers and molders need to find out about the equipment, tools, materials and processing required, while existing thermoformers, toolmakers and equipment makers are finding out more about the exact needs and demands of the auto industry, he said.
``They're all coming to us and saying, `We want to do this. What do we need?' '' Waddell said. ``Films are a different beast. It's not the same thing as bringing in a piece of acrylic. They require more finesse and talent.''
Some companies are opting either to partner up with existing firms or buy into the industry. Carlisle Engineered Products Inc. had teamed with thermoformer Stack Pac Corp. of Grand Rapids, Mich., on an exterior trim using a thermoformed paint replacement.
In January 2003, Crestline, Ohio-based Carlisle bought Stack Pac, seeing the potential for business growth through paint-replacement technology.
``We are seeing just about every specialty vehicle that's coming along,'' said Gil Kerr, manager of vehicle integration for Carlisle Engineered Products Inc. ``We've been told that systems are being designed with thermoforming [skin] in mind,'' he said.
The bulk of the automotive interest is in exterior components that use some kind of film to replace paint, Waddell said.
Paint-replacement systems have not gained traction as quickly as their backers hoped, despite increasing interest.
DaimlerChrysler slowed its program when it stopped injection molding its own bumpers at its Belvidere assembly plant. Mayco now is taking on the complete bumper fascia program - from extruding the film to thermoforming the skin to applying it in the mold as it produces the fascia.
``We've had great progress, and we've learned a lot along the way,'' Thomas Edson, director of applied materials for DaimlerChrysler, said during the Feb. 23 SPE event. ``There are some technical challenges that remain, however.''
Beyond the bumper program for the Dodge Neon, Chrysler has developed a concept car using the extruded film on thermoplastic fenders and a deck lid.
And while the Neon may be the first to market, Chrysler is hardly alone. Suppliers and consultants alike note that nearly every North American automaker is taking a close look at paint-replacement programs, and urging molders to be ready to bid on future programs. They are developing their own independent systems, teaming with raw material suppliers and even reverse engineering the Neon system.
``Before, the [automakers] would have done all of this themselves,'' said Mayco President Timothy Hoefer. ``This is an innovation that is being driven by the supplier base.''
The reason for all the interest is simple. Money.
In an industry that looks for ways to scrape a few cents off the cost of parts, paint replacement offers dollars' worth of cost savings per part because it skips the expensive, difficult and environmentally touchy paint shops.
``Why paint if you don't have to paint?'' said Albert Faraj, product strategy director for Visteon Corp.'s interior product line team.
Visteon and other interior suppliers have used in-mold decorating for years, providing visual touches mimicking wood grain or brushed metal.
Now the Dearborn, Mich.-based firm wants to know that its own suppliers are aware of new demands for in-mold decorating, Faraj said.
``We need to make sure that our supply base is fully ready to integrate those trends in material appearances, grains and colors,'' he said. ``Really, that has been a challenge for a few of them, but you're seeing that the ones that are successful are the ones that are able to bring forward things like in-mold colors, for instance.''
Working against replacement systems, though, is the existing automotive manufacturing infrastructure and production history. Automakers already own paint shops, Edson noted. The existing power structure favors painted steel components.
In addition, the industry has had performance problems with previous paint film programs, such as film peeling away from the substrate. The new ionomer program - using the same technology that gives a golf ball its color - will not suffer that fate, backers maintain.
Even on the plastics side of the auto industry, existing exterior suppliers already have invested millions in paint shops, giving them little incentive to push for paint replacement.
``So how do you break through?'' Edson asked. ``I would suggest that you've got to identify some compelling forces.
``Resistance to change is a big [barrier]. We have a classic chicken-and-egg syndrome here. No one wants to use the technology until it's been proven, and you can't prove it until you try it. That is a big problem.''
Hoefer said he expects acceptance to come first on limited-production specialty cars. Major contracts may be two to three years in the making - a tough waiting period for companies that have made early investments, placing themselves on the front line.
Still, he said, the potential payoff throughout the industry remains compelling.
``It's been a good move for us,'' agreed Carlisle's Kerr. ``We're seeing a lot of inquiries through the thermoforming. This technology is there and it is improving. It has been a little slower taking off than we'd like, but the interest is just increasing.''