TI Automotive Ltd. has watched as the North American auto industry moved from steel fuel tanks to plastic fuel tanks.
Now, while the slowdown in production is hurting North American sales, TI's chairman and chief executive officer thinks the time may be right for more steel-to-plastic conversion in the fuel system, which would boost production for the company, and help carmakers save money and shave weight from their cars.
Bill Kozyra cited two likely spots for plastic to take over in the fuel filler pipe and in the fuel lines themselves.
TI, based in Oxford, England, already makes plastic fuel filler pipes in Europe, where plastic is the predominant material used to connect the tank to the filler cap. In North America, however, automakers prefer steel.
``I think that's a good example of material substitution that has both lighter weight and lower cost that North American [carmakers] should consider,'' Kozyra said in an Aug. 13 interview during the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
The U.S. automakers would have to tweak their existing designs around the filler neck area to allow for plastic, he said, ``but if Europeans can do it in BMWs and Mercedes, then for sure we can do it here.''
Plastic fuel lines are a new concept that would take more time, he said, but TI has developed a multilayer coextrusion process using nylon that would fit into new car developments, especially vehicles like India's $2,500 car, the Nano, which is designed around low-cost production methods.
``This is a good place to start, where we don't have the ability to add the very sophisticated steel design,'' Kozyra said.
Plastic would require the automaker to place lines where they would not be at risk for damage from road debris, he said, but it can be done especially on a new vehicle that is being designed from the ground up.
``There's no reason why you cannot carry fuel around the vehicle using plastic,'' he said.
Replacing more steel with plastic would boost TI's business in regions like North America, where it has seen its sales drop as auto production slows. TI has seen about a 5 percent loss in North America so far this year, which is balanced by global growth, Kozyra said.
TI moved its global headquarters for its fluid-carrying systems business which includes blow molded fuel tanks from Warren, Mich., to Heidelberg, Germany, to prepare for expected growth outside North America. The move cut about 50 jobs from Warren, and 200 overall in North America.
At the same time, though, it is maintaining its manufacturing capabilities at full strength in the United States so it will be able to respond as business picks up, or as new assembly plants open like the Volkswagen AG plant planned for Chattanooga, Tenn.
``Right now we have volume reductions so we are reducing our cost structure for variable and reduced costs as much as possible, so we can still have profitable business in North America at reduced volumes but the capacity will still exist here. It doesn't make sense to remove capacity,'' he said.