After 10 years of tests and studies, polycarbonate windows may finally be ready for their breakthrough in the North American auto market.
John Madej, president of PC glazing company Exatec LLC, believes there is evidence to back up his optimism. In 2004 and 2005, the company received orders for 70 prototypes from automakers and their suppliers.
In 2006 and 2007, the Wixom-based technology company created 430 prototypes.
``This isn't just an idea,'' Madej said during a Feb. 29 open house at Exatec in Wixom, to show off the operations to media, students and customers. ``This is an idea that's been thought through. The solutions have been developed.''
Exatec launched in 1998 to develop the weather- and scratch-resistance technology PC needed for the auto industry to begin using the material in place of glass. Now a wholly owned subsidiary of Sabic Innovative Plastics, the company has 42 employees and has begun licensing its plasma coating and weatherizing systems to auto suppliers.
The firm also won approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to use PC in all nonmoving car windows except the front windshield. That means plastic conceivably could replace glass in quarter panel windows, rear windows and sunroofs.
The firm has created ways to add rear window defrosters, and its in-house, two-shot Engel compression injection molding machine has allowed Exatec to develop prototype windows for tailgates with two colors and integrated connections for taillight assemblies, wiring, interior trim and other parts.
``Molding technology has increased extraordinarily from the level we were at when we opened,'' Madej said.
European automakers have begun to embrace the potential of polycarbonate, which allows them to lower the weight of their cars while adding function.
Now the company, with backing from Pittsfield, Mass.-based Sabic IP, thinks the time is here for the North American auto industry to begin moving to plastic as well. In September, Exatec revamped its operation to allow it to build parts up to 50 percent bigger than its previous prototypes - big enough for large PC roofs - and boosted its line speed abilities by 25 percent so it could provide large-scale production tests.
While interest has been growing, with designers pushing PC's use for panoramic roof systems, the improved fuel performance that will be required for U.S. cars is a major driver, noted Greg Adams, vice president and general manager for Sabic IP's automotive business unit.
``From our view, the fuel-economy pressure will make an impact,'' he said. ``Weight is a big piece of the puzzle because the less mass on the car, the less it requires for propulsion.''
Replacing glass with plastic can reduce a car's overall weight by up to 40 pounds, depending on the car.
But a strict one-for-one glass replacement will not make a full business case for PC, he admitted. A flat piece of standard auto glass is cheaper than PC. The selling point comes as carmakers and suppliers realize what they can do with those parts.
Integrated antennas printed directly on the plastic can replace external antennas. Electroluminescent film built into a skylight in Madej's test vehicle - a Jeep Liberty with prototype plastic windows throughout - provides mood lighting in the back of the vehicle. Tailgates ready for assembly with integrated connectors allow carmakers to cut production costs.
Those possibilities, as well as developing the ability to make the plastic resistant to weather and scratches, were developed within Exatec to make PC a viable alternative for automakers.
``Glass has been around in the auto industry for more than a hundred years,'' Madej said. ``They have to develop the same level of confidence with polycarbonate.''
The company had to learn how to add something like a rear window defroster to PC to make it a viable glass alternative. On glass, defrosters are added to a flat panel, which is then shaped into a curve to fit the vehicle.
With plastic, the shape is there from the start, Madej said. At the Wixom center, robots follow the curve of the plastic to add a defroster to a new rear window following a format that can be used in full production by auto suppliers.
Exatec does not produce its own parts, instead licensing its technology to parts makers.
Even more development will come as designers and engineers find out what they can do with the plastic. At the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Exatec-glazed PC was used on concept cars by Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln and Land Rover brands and General Motors Corp.'s Hummer.
``Think about where we were in the 1970s and 1980s when we made the switch from glass to plastic for automotive lighting,'' Adams said. ``That's where [PC glazing] is today.''