Year after year, automotive engineers tell researchers that the overriding concern in the industry is money - from customers looking to cut costs, to suppliers increasing raw material prices.
With processors being squeezed from both sides, some plastics business executives predict the pressure to compete financially may lead not just to ulcers, but to more innovations in technology.
``What you're starting to see now is some people getting the cost out not through materials, but through processing,'' said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, general director of Rhodia Engineering Plastics SA of Lyon, France, and leader of its automotive markets group. Steinmetz was interviewed at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2005 World Congress, held April 11-14 in Detroit.
Energy prices are climbing, raw material costs are growing and demand from developing countries such as China is continuing a push that will mean high resin costs for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes there are less-expensive material options available, Steinmetz noted, but molders and automakers anxious to reduce costs will have to collaborate on new ways to make components that can reduce total part price.
``For sustainable development, the entire product chain must be optimized, from the resin costs through the molding and the customer demands,'' Steinmetz said. ``There is a great opportunity now to turn around a tradition where we had seen a lot of commoditization in the industry that is now driving new ideas and concepts.''
Engineers responding to DuPont Co.'s annual survey of automakers and suppliers said cost reduction is the top challenge facing the industry, with 26 percent listing it as the top concern, down slightly from 33 percent a year earlier.
However, the same engineers also call collaborative, focused innovations the best strategy to strengthen the auto industry.
The survey showed 33 percent of the respondents listing consumer-focused products as the top potential improvement, and another 21 percent calling for increased value-chain collaboration.
The move toward more cooperative measures has been on the rise for the past few years, said Chris Murphy, automotive director-Americas for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont's Automotive Performance Materials. However, it is getting more of a foothold now.
``Procurement departments have ruled the roost for the past few years,'' Murphy said. ``It's a pendulum, and the pendulum has been swinging more and more, but companies are now opening their eyes to total costs.''
DuPont, for instance, worked closely with automaker Toyota Motor Corp. of Tokyo, molder Uchiyama Manufacturing Corp. of Okayama, Japan, and systems integrator Aisan Industry Co. Ltd. of Obu, Japan, to create a water space jacket made of Zytel polyamide for Toyota's Zero Crown car.
The system, used inside the combustion chamber, allows the auto manufacturer to improve temperature control in the engine, increasing fuel efficiency by 1 percent and increasing engine life.
Germany's Mann + Hummel GmbH created the world's first all-plastic oil module, working in partnership with a European automaker, and is able to offer its customers one part that takes in six different working elements.
Innovation also can take place, though, by reconsidering material use, according to Wilfried Lehr, managing director for Mann + Hummel, a Ludwigsburg, Germany-based supplier.
If a more expensive material allows the company to produce parts with thinner walls, that material may make sense overall, Lehr said. Reconfiguring a structural element with ribs rather than wall thickness also could work.
``Sometimes there is a chance to use, let's say, recompounded materials,'' Lehr said. ``You have some options depending on the functionality. If the plastic is just a cover, if it doesn't have the strength requirements, that may be something, but you always have to look at the overall cost.''
Murphy said he is not ready to lay a direct line between resin prices and an interest in innovation, but cooperation is a real goal.
``Look at Toyota,'' Murphy said. ``Toyota has a reputation for collaboration and everyone wants to work with Toyota, and we're starting to see more examples in the North American supply chain now.''