Magna International Inc. is building its future on the image of tomorrow's car.
The car will have lightweight thermoplastic body panels and polycarbonate roof systems to help improve gas mileage, injection molded plastic parts to replace thixomolded magnesium, complex battery packs and wiring for electric power to boost gasoline power, integrated cameras and sensors for improved safety and those parts will be made throughout an increasingly widened global footprint.
``The two main things we're looking at as a supplier is that we need to be situated where [carmakers] are on the globe and we need to continue to assess our products within the organization,'' said James Tobin, executive vice president of business development for Magna and its president of Asia, at an Oct. 1 press event at the firm's Troy offices.
And the largest focus in research and product development is in energy efficiency and parts that decrease weight, added Ted Robertson, chief technical officer and executive vice president of new product creation.
``Every auto manufacturer in the world needs to improve emissions and fuel economy and everyone's driving toward reduced weight,'' Robertson said. ``Every single Magna system, we're focused on reducing weight.''
Magna, based in Aurora, Ontario, is a $26.1 billion company making parts that go into nearly every aspect of today's cars and trucks, from seats to chassis to door panels and mirrors. The firm even does complete auto assembly in Europe. To make sure it continues to be a vital supplier, Magna engineers are working closely with carmakers in the early stages of auto design. During its open house, the supplier showed off products slated to hit the market in 2011 and beyond.
Those products include parts to make vehicles safer such as integrated cameras that show whether a child is just out of sight behind a car as well as electronic infrastructures that will go into all-electric cars.
One of the biggest drivers, though, is to cut vehicle weight by 30 percent to help carmakers meet U.S. regulations that will require cars and trucks to hit higher fuel-economy standards, Robertson said.
``It's very, very important to reduce the reliance on gasoline,'' he said.
That push should provide the traction needed to place thermoplastic parts on cars, like a two-part injection molded lift gate on sport utility vehicles and hatchbacks that would be 25 percent lighter than the existing lift gates.
``I think the breakthrough is here now,'' said Norman Guschewski, director of module development for Magna's Decoma International Inc. exterior parts group.
Magna uses in-line compounding of long-glass-fiber polypropylene, along with integrated ribs, to create an inner door panel that meets the same structural requirements as those relying on steel reinforcement, he said. It also can match that inner part with an outer PP panel to create an all-plastic system.
In addition Magna is producing the only polycarbonate roof system in production in North America, used on General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Corvette, said Jan Just, executive vice president of Magna's Car Top Systems unit. Just said the weight savings available by replacing a glass sunroof or panoramic roof with plastic is driving interest.
``Everybody's looking at PC applications,'' he said.
The company also wants to use glass-fiber-filled injection molded plastics, instead of thixomolded magnesium, for frame components in convertible tops, he said. While magnesium is light and strong, even with thixomolding which uses a powder magnesium in an injection molding process the metal sometimes requires extra machining, which increases cost, Just said. A plastic part could come out of the mold ready to use.
Lighter weight also is a focus of future parts that are not as flashy as a sports car or as big as an exterior body panel.
Magna is developing an electronic door latch, which would replace the existing mechanical latches with what the company calls, ``latch by wire.'' The button on today's key fobs sends an electrical signal to unlock a door, said Kevin Gillis, executive director of product and platform engineering for Magna Closures. But that electronic pulse still operates a set of mechanical switches.
Going to an all-electric system would save about 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, of weight per door.
Molding window regulator tracks directly on a door substrate, rather than installing metal or plastic window runners onto the panel, also will decrease weight. A separate Magna system to install a weather seal directly on the door substrate in a two-shot molding process, rather than applying the seal in a separate step, should hit the market in 2011, as well.
While the auto industry adds more electronic power to its cars, both in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, Magna is trying to place itself as the middle man between battery makers and automakers. It knows how to package batteries within a car's frame, and how to run a car's electrical systems, according to John Dick, with Magna's Energy Storage Systems business.
``We've been studying the chemistry of all of the batteries, and we know how the electronics in the car talk to each other,'' Dick said.