The auto industry may be at its best position in years to begin bringing more plastic content onto cars, as automakers push to reduce weight and improve mileage.
But at the same time, current economic conditions mean some suppliers that have been waiting for just that chance may have problems bringing in new manufacturing technology just when they need it most.
``There are opportunities out there for materials to go through a revolution,'' said John Thelen, engineering vice president at Magna International Inc.'s Decoma Interiors and Exteriors unit.
``You can see what we can do today through [processes] like in-line compounding, but that requires some major investments, and with the credit market today, it's going to be hard for companies to bring that in,'' he said during an Oct. 7 discussion on the future of the auto industry at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive TPO Global Conference in Sterling Heights.
``It puts more of a risk on the molder and there has got to be a certain volume level to make that pay.''
Neither money nor steady auto production are in steady supply at this time.
A year ago, automakers taking part in the conference's annual panel discussion questioned if plastics especially thermoplastic polyolefin could replace steel successfully in body panels. Executives from Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. still give an edge to steel, but noted that the door is open for plastics.
``The challenge to the plastics industry is that there are opportunities in reducing mass, but there are also customer questions that we face in terms of fit and finish,'' said Maureen Midgley, executive director of the global paint and polymers center for Detroit-based GM.
Even steel panels, she said, can get poor reviews from car buyers who demand the best from their vehicles.
Thermoplastic's thermal expansion and contraction means it typically does not meet those consumers' demands for small gaps between body panels, noted Midgley, who helped launch production of GM's Saturn vehicle line with its plastic panels. GM replaced the plastic with steel after Vice Chairman Bob Lutz publicly derided the size of the gap needed in its panels.
And despite increasing costs for steel, it remains the cheaper alternative.
``It's very difficult to replace steel from an outright cost standpoint,'' Magna's Thelen said. ``It's always going to be an uphill climb for body panels.''
But at the same time, plastic makes sense when it is part of an overall module that includes functional parts and reduces the overall cost. That means more use of plastics in front-end modules that include both polypropylene structural beams and TPO bumper fascia along with lighting, wiring and other parts.
``You have to come up with a business case that works,'' said Michael Whitens, body interior chief engineer of global cockpit and trim systems for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford.
Tokyo-based Nissan has integrated lighting and other parts into thermoplastic lift gates on its Nissan Murano and Infiniti FX crossover vehicles. The gates are another place where it makes sense for plastics to break through to new locations on the car. Chris Reynolds, manager of exterior/ front-end-module design at Nissan Technical Center North America, said his company wants to see more TPO blends that allow molders to make a thinner bumper fascia that will stand up to impact tests.
Dow Chemical Co. is preparing a TPO blend that will hit those requirements, said David Mitchell, marketing manager of specialty plastics and elastomers for Midland, Mich.-based Dow.
In a survey of automakers and molders, the company found that nearly everyone is looking for a material that will allow them to use less resin but achieve the same results.
``Smaller cars have smaller parts, which means less resin is used, but there is still a lot of untapped potential out there in terms of other parts,'' said Jim McKinley, global manager of Houston-based ExxonMobil Chemical Co.'s specialty compounds business.
But commercializing such components will still rely on an auto industry that is seeing its sales drop in part because buyers cannot get credit or are unwilling to spend money now, and on molders that are experiencing problems finding the cash to invest in new technology.
Aurora, Ontario-based Magna, with more than $26 billion in annual sales, has access to the equipment, Thelen noted, but other suppliers that are just hanging on now might not.
Still, automakers and suppliers alike noted that more companies are open to trying new things when they need to find an edge to compete. When sales are hot, they see fewer reasons to buck tradition.
``As the auto industry slows down, people are coming to us and saying: `Show us new technology,' '' said Kipp Boegner, engineering manager with JSP Corp.'s North American office in Madison Heights, Mich.
JSP has been developing new markets for expanded PP in the auto industry; one of them includes replacing some urethane foam in seats which decreases the seats' weight.
``There is always going to be a margin for innovation,'' Ford's Whitens said. ``There is not a margin for status quo.''