General Motors Corp. is driving the use of exterior auto plastics using a film in place of a standard paint line, with parts launching on five vehicles, ranging from bumper fascia to rocker panels.
Unlike past moves into parts using a paint-replacement film, GM has opted for a thick thermoformed sheet, and intends to develop a supply base that can support even more production.
``This is one of our major efforts,'' said Charles Buehler, a technical integration engineer in Detroit-based GM's materials group, during an Oct. 11 interview at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoplastic Olefin conference in Sterling Heights. ``We're working to build a cooperative supply base for thermoforming.''
GM first used a thermoformed sheet combining a TPO base with a body-color film replacing paint on a stone shield on its SSR sports roadster truck. Now its new HHR crossover vehicle boasts stone shields using the process.
Two cars just beginning to roll out - the Buick Lucerne and Cadillac STS-V - will have thermoformed rocker panels, while bumper fascia on the Envoy and Denali sport utility vehicles will begin using the thermoforming process starting next year.
GM and its suppliers already have created 1,000 of the fascia in an early rollout. On the bumpers, the companies not only rid themselves of the need to paint a plastic part, they also replaced an injection molded part with thermoforming.
An earlier paint-replacement system, which debuted on DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge Neon, used a thermoformed paint-replacement, but injection molded the fascia behind a thin formed sheet.
The thick-sheet thermoforming reduces the number of manufacturing steps, shortening development time while also cutting costs, since tooling for thermoforming is less expensive than standard injection molding tools, Buehler said.
Using thermoforming, the company and its suppliers can have a new component created - from design through tooling to production - within 120 days, he said.
``We see this as an enabler,'' Buehler said. ``We're not against injection molding behind [the sheet], but we think the supply base in place isn't ready.''
Now a supply base for thermoforming is coming into shape, creating new opportunities for molders, material suppliers, toolmakers and machinery makers.
The GM system takes advantage of films produced by Soliant LLC - created in 2002 through the spinoff of Rexam plc's weatherable films unit - that can match the full line of automotive paint colors.
Machinery makers more accustomed to turning out equipment used in materials-handling are learning about the demands on production for parts that match automakers' demands for Class A surface quality, said Ed Bearse, a partner in Plastic Concepts & Innovations LLC of Mount Pleasant, S.C.
His firm is helping to coordinate communication within the developing supply chain and running training programs for thermoformers.
Durakon Industries Inc., a Lapeer, Mich.-based thermoformer traditionally known for its aftermarket thermoformed pickup beds, launched its paint film technology with GM's SSR. Now it also is turning out rocker panels for the Lucerne and STS-V.
Guardian Industries Inc., a traditional injection molder, is making the stone shields for the HHR and is taking over thermoforming operations from its partner, Southtech Plastics Inc. in New Bern, N.C., and is seeking additional contracts.
Another injection molder, Meridian Automotive Systems Inc. in Dearborn, Mich., is overseeing the SUV fascia program.
``This is something new for the industry,'' said Len Damico, vice president for original equipment manufacturer sales for Durakon. ``It's been a real bright spot for the company, and we've made some substantial investments.''
Durakon was one of the handful of thick-sheet thermoformers already supplying the auto industry. It already had its own in-house extrusion to turn out the sheets, but added clean rooms to laminate its substrate to Soliant's film while also adding new robots to further automate production.
``It'd been a tremendous effort to get this started from an infrastructure standpoint,'' said Joe Randazzo, director of research and materials development for Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Guardian.
By partnering with Southtech, Guardian has access to Southtech's expertise in producing the thick TPO sheets laminated with Soliant's film while also tapping other companies for information, such as PCI.
Damico noted Durakon has shared information with potential competitors to get the industry off to a smooth start.
``It's a new beast out there called collaboration,'' he said. ``Collaboration and teamwork are essential.''
So far, the products picked by GM to launch the paint-replacement project cover a wide range - from fascias with complex curves to exterior trim. The SSR has a limited production run with fewer than 1,000 produced annually, while GM will turn out more than 100,000 of Buick's Lucerne sedan.
In each case, though, GM is targeting specific applications, Buehler said. In the case of the HHR, the company needed to protect a fender area of the car that takes abuse from road debris. Stones would chip away the paint on a standard part.
The automaker and its suppliers had to design a shield that would stand up to the damage, but also precisely mimic the shape of the vehicle, sitting flush with the body.
``The perspective that we're looking at is in terms of value performance,'' Buehler said. ``We want what's best for the vehicle. We want the right places to do it.''
Meridian is investing both in thermoforming and standard injection molding and paint lines so it can make parts with whichever process its customer selects, said Chief Operating Officer Steve McKenzie.
Success with GM's programs now will lead to more opportunities. Randazzo noted that all of the automakers are continuing to consider options.
``There is a lot of interest out there and GM, for all intents and purposes, is the one that is pushing it forward,'' he said. ``They've made a real production commitment.''