The auto industry's next competitive edge may be inside the press.
With multimaterial injection molding, automakers are able to offer customers a wider range of colors and styles in their interiors. Molders are finding new ways to tweak the technology to offer those looks at competitive prices.
Even players far down the value chain are in a position to benefit, since the need for a high level of cooperation means less risk that work will go overseas to low-cost bidders.
The first major interior parts being made through the multimaterial processing are coming on the market now, including instrument panels, door panels, center consoles and other interior trim components.
``It certainly makes a lot of sense to do it, because in the interior it can improve the aesthetics,'' said Jack Avery, principal of Avery Plastics Consulting of Salt Lake City.
``You're not just seeing, excuse the expression, cheap black plastic being used. There's so much more. You can do all these things, and do it in the machine.''
While multimaterial processing has been used in the auto industry for years, especially in exterior lighting, it is gaining new ground in interiors.
Johnson Control Inc. developed its capabilities under the CrafTec brand name, and uses injection molding technology to integrate exterior skin, foam, multiple colors and textures all onto the substrate.
Lear Corp. now is launching its two-shot technology on door panels for two North American vehicles. The firm has invested in at least two new presses for existing contracts, and has more work coming in.
And Visteon Corp. has developed a new way to injection mold with multiple materials using standard presses and molds. The company is using the technology to make parts for the 2005 Ford Mustang.
``This is a part of improving the appearance of interiors ... and tactility improving the interior without hitting on the cost,'' said Albert Faraj, interiors product director for Visteon, based in Van Buren Township near Romulus, Mich.
U.S. molders have been slower to use coinjection and multimaterial technology, Avery noted. In 2003, 65 percent of coinjection molding globally took place in Europe, with 10 percent produced in North America. Now U.S. molders are looking at the technology as a way to combat pricing pressures.
U.S. firms, like their European counterparts, have found they can reduce assembly and labor costs through better use of machinery, he said. At the same time, multimaterial production can supply a better look to visible parts and integrate connections, safety features or noise-reducing technology behind the skin.
The aesthetic benefits combined with reduced production costs are a big selling point to automakers.
The technology can provide a balance that has not always been there, said Ken Shaner, vice president of manufacturing engineering for Southfield, Mich.-based Lear. Someone buying an upscale sport utility vehicle, for instance, may expect a soft-touch interior but be disappointed to find a hard substrate painted to look more luxurious.
``You have to come up with new ideas, or you just become a `me too' supplier,'' Shaner said.
Nearly three years ago, Shaner and Bob Adams, director of advanced engineering, began investigating the potential of two-shot injection molding for Lear.
``We thought it was a natural,'' he said. ``We thought this was a way to get a moderately priced product out there.''
The first problem was finding a press with rotating platens big enough to handle parts used in the auto industry, Shaner said.
To bring Lear's concept to the market, the company worked with Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario - first at Husky's technical center in Novi, Mich., to adapt an 8,000-ton press to test the firm's two-shot program, then to build machines specifically to meet Lear's needs.
The company also worked with an undisclosed resin supplier to create a proprietary thermoplastic elastomer used in conjunction with a thermoplastic olefin substrate.
``The feel is so subjective,'' Adams said. ``Some people like the rubber feel [from the TPE], some the silky feel. The comments from most of the styling people we've worked with is that they like the fact it doesn't feel like just a hard plastic.''
Visteon also worked with Husky to create its multimaterial approach, which it terms a simultaneous-shot injection molded substrate.
Unlike traditional coinjection manufacturing with specialized presses and tooling, Visteon's approach manipulates sequential gating in a traditional mold and press to shoot a secondary material into the mold.
The resulting instrument panel on Ford's 2005 Mustang allows Visteon to supply a two-color component without paint or an additional molding process. At the same time, Avery pointed out, Visteon reduced the risk in launching the new system because even if it did not work, the company still could use the mold and press to produce the part through a traditional molding and painting technique.
As a result, Visteon cut its capital investment costs by a third and its tooling costs by about 50 percent compared with traditional coinjection processes. Visteon will be taking the system even further, Faraj said.
Both Lear and Visteon officials noted they needed a team approach to make the system work, and needed to work hand-in-hand with regional specialists from toolmaking to resin, rather than seeking the lowest-cost partners.
``We're talking about an entire system, from the materials to the tooling and processing,'' Faraj said.
It is not easy to make the leap into multimaterial processing, Shaner said. Lear took the move without knowing whether automakers would follow the firm into the technology.
``It is capital-intensive to start with, and you've got to look at how much you're willing to invest at the start,'' he said. ``You don't know exactly how much interest there is out there.''
And merely buying the equipment is not enough, Avery added. Making the original outlay is the easy part.
``The equipment is available to everyone, but just because you buy it, it doesn't mean it's going to be successful,'' he said. ``You have to have the capability, to know how the pieces will fit together and work throughout the supply chain.
``The power of the process is how it all fits into place. It is a commitment to the technology, and that means having the resources and committing to do some new things, because there is definitely a learning curve.''