Jim Queen is aware of how hard it is doing business in the auto industry these days.
``We've got a lot of hand wringing going on,'' said Queen, group vice president for global engineering at Detroit-based General Motors Corp. ``We've got a lot of people saying, `Ain't it bad. Ain't it bad.' ''
Queen didn't have to look far to see both the economic realities and the potential for a bright future. On Nov. 7, Queen and the rest of GM's executives started the day with the news that the company recorded a $39 billion loss for the third quarter, much of it through accounting write-downs.
That evening, Queen stood next to Larry Burns, vice president of research and development and strategic planning at GM, and talked about the future of the auto industry - from hybrid cars to plug-in electric vehicles and fuel cells.
Both the current economics and the potential future are real issues for the auto industry, Queen said.
``There are solutions, and it's not just a trade-off of money for innovation,'' Burns said.
Both men were honored by the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division for their leadership during the annual SPE awards event in Livonia.
Queen was named winner of the 2007 Executive Leadership Award while Burns received the Global Executive Engineering Leadership Award.
Also honored during the reception were Hiroaki Yamamoto, chief technology officer of auto supplier Green Tokai Co. Ltd., who received a special recognition award for global excellence in plastics engineering; and Josh Madden, a retired engineer who worked with both GM and Volkswagen AG on breakthroughs that included the first thermoplastic front grille.
Harsh economic times can lead to innovations that save companies money, and help both automakers and suppliers survive.
``Innovation is going to display itself because it is in bad times that you can get people to reconsider the way of doing things,'' said Rob Krebs, communications director for the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va.
ACC has collected a series of reports that show the benefits of plastics, to help drive more use of it by the auto industry.
``Innovation is what will help us work our way through this,'' Krebs said.
Yamamoto's focus with Brookville, Ohio-based Green Tokai has taken the company through its development and use of paint films to replace expensive paint lines. His patents have even been licensed back to parent company Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. of Obu City, Japan. Green Tokai is looking at the potential for even more savings by using paint film to replace chrome.
GM's investment in nanocomposites, including a nano clay- filled polypropylene used for exterior trim for the Chevrolet Impala, is continuing, with the automaker looking at more ways to use the material for its light weight.
The Sequel fuel-cell concept car weighs 500 pounds more than today's Buick Enclave crossover vehicle because of the batteries, fuel tanks and other components, Burns pointed out. GM will need to find more and more lightweight solutions to make a car like that a real alternative in the future.
And plastics are a key in the bipolar plates used for hydrogen fuel cells for future cars, and make up much of the exterior, interior and battery components in GM's Volt electric car concept.
Just having plastics as an alternative keeps the engineers of competing materials like high-strength steel and aluminum busy researching their own alternatives, according to Burns.
``Technical people have had to step forward as we seek to make affordable, sustainable transportation,'' Queen said.
SPE's grand-prize-winning part for the year marries technology with creative thinking to produce something that works well, but also saves money.
GM's Chevrolet Tahoe uses a combination of a color-converting film and polycarbonate light pipes to create a backlit display for the radio using five inexpensive blue light-emitting-diode lights instead of 30 expensive white lights.
The finished system, created and molded by Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp.'s Electronics and Safety division, costs 66 percent less than its standard LED back-light competitor.
The light pipes channel the light from one LED along the length of the specially designed PC. The film, meanwhile, acts like a prism to shift the light's color, allowing Delphi to get multiple colors out of one LED bulb.
Delphi uses a PC from Bayer for the GM lighting, which also won the Materials category prize. Kno-Mar Tool & Die Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., was the toolmaker.
Other awards were:
* General Motors' midsized sport utility vehicles Trailblazer and Envoy won the Body Exterior award for using a one-piece, all-thermoplastic running board that replaces a five-piece plastic and steel assembly. Aurora, Ontario-based Magna International Inc.'s Decoma Mytox division injection molds the running board in a two-step process that reduces the mass by 50 percent and cuts costs by $19 per vehicle. The company uses its own blend of a long-glass polypropylene for the running board. Nova Tool and Mold Inc. of Windsor, Ontario, was the mold maker.
* A complete door trim and hardware module for Chrysler LLC's Caliber, Compass and Patriot vehicles won the Body Interior category for an assembly that reduces both the weight and cost. Grupo Antonlin, with corporate offices in Madrid, Spain, is the system supplier for the module, produced at its Belvidere, Ill., plant for Chrysler vehicles assembled in Belvidere. International Automotive Components Group molds the door, using PP supplied by Dow Chemical Co. and tooling from HiTech.
The module eliminates the need for a separate carrier for electronics and other components, and does away with the need for a water shield by using a specially designed seal around the edge of the trim. The final part reduces weight by 10 percent and cuts the production cost per vehicle by $10 to $17.
* The extruded seal used on Chrysler's Dodge Nitro and Jeep Liberty won the Chassis/Hardware category for its ability to provide a water barrier, acoustic barrier and seal to block out dirt and dust. French supplier Faurecia SA, with North American offices in Troy, is both the molder and system supplier for the door with the thermoplastic elastomer seal, which reduces the seal mass by 48 percent, material costs by 53 percent, capital expenses by 15 percent and cure time by 90 percent. The manufacturing system uses ExxonMobil Chemical Co.'s Santoprene in an automated process with Reiss Robotics and Gepoc Polychemie GmbH tooling to extrude the seal directly onto the door carrier.
* A blow molded aftermarket folding pickup bed extender designed for Ford Motor Co.'s F250 pickups received the Performance and Customization award. The glass-reinforced polypropylene bed extender replaces similar steel or aluminum options and can expand the truck's bed or be folded away when not in use. Toronto-based ABC Group Inc. is the molder and system supplier and uses resin from its in-house compounding group, Salflex Polymers, and tooling from its in-house unit, Supreme Tooling.
* In the Powertrain category, Chrysler replaced an aluminum electronic throttle control module in its Pacifica crossover vehicle with one made from BMC Inc.'s bulk molding compound, reducing costs by 18 percent and mass by 28 percent. Electronic throttle controls are used to improve engine performance through better regulation of air and fuel. That improved efficiency also improves fuel efficiency. The BMC module has done so well that Chrysler is expanding its use from one engine to nine different engines. It was supplied by Bosch and molded by Christophery Kunststofftechnik GmbH of Brilon, Germany, and Helvoet Rubber & Plastic Technologies BV of Hellevoetsluis, Netherlands, with tooling from Christophery,
* The front-end carrier on Volkswagen's Golf, Bora and Jetta passenger cars won the Process/Assembly/Enabling Technology category. The carrier is the first direct-long-fiber thermoplastic composite front-end carrier compounded with a twin-screw instead of single-screw extruder in the compounding part of the process. The system saves weight and eliminates some secondary operations. Aksys de Mexico SA de CV, based in Puebla, Mexico, is the system supplier and molder for the carrier, using material from Basell Polyolefins of Elkton, Md., and Owens Corning Co. of Toledo, Ohio.
* The Hall of Fame award went to the nylon radiator end tank first used in the 1982 Ford Escort, Mercury and Lynx compact cars. The tanks were one of the first under-the-hood applications for plastics and DuPont developed new grades of its glass-reinforced nylon to withstand the engine temperatures and engine chemicals, including antifreeze solutions. Hoover Universal Inc. was the molder for those first parts.