LIVONIA, MICH. You've heard it all before: The auto industry is tanking, there are fewer cars being sold and technology is being stripped from cars left and right. But the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Division does not agree with that argument, and in its annual awards event, the group set out to honor real breakthroughs in both cars and parts making.
``In spite of the turmoil that we've never seen before in this industry, there are really bright spots in the midst of all the gloom,'' said Maria Ciliberti, SPE Innovation Awards chairwoman for 2008 and global automotive director for Florence, Ky.-based resin supplier Ticona.
During its Nov. 20 awards dinner in Livonia, SPE lauded vehicles already in production. Consumers will not even see the bulk of the honored parts.
BMW AG of Munich, Germany, for instance, is using a new twin-sheet blow molded fuel system developed by Inergy Automotive Systems on its new 7 Series, which reduces production cost by 10 percent and also allows for a multilayer plastic fuel tank to meet tough emissions standards.
The tank won both the grand prize and the process/assembly/enabling technology award from SAE.
Inergy spent seven years developing the tank, in which key components such as sensors and the fuel pump are attached to a central core in the mold, and two extruded sheets are blow molded around them. The resulting tank requires fewer external weld lines than a more traditional plastic tank that contains those parts. With less post-molding assembly and fewer weld points required, the tank is less permeable, meaning that it meets more emission tests.
Continental AG of Hanover, Germany, supplies the fuel systems for BMW vehicles, with LyondellBasell Industries AF SCA of Rotterdam, Netherlands, supplying the high density polyethylene. Paris-based Inergy also makes the project's tools.
``We had a large number of first-of-their-kind products that were nominated, a lot of patented technologies, trademarked parts and licensed technology,'' Ciliberti said.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. had 10 different parts on its Flex crossover vehicle nominated, which prompted SPE to create the Vehicle Engineering Team Award to recognize all of the new products debuting on the Flex.
``I don't think we've ever seen a vehicle with that many breakthrough nominations,'' she said. ``You hear people saying that the domestic [automakers] aren't innovating, but they just don't have enough exposure to what's going on.''
One of the new technologies, an integrated floor shifter and front console used on the Flex, won the SPE International award for body interior.
Automotive Component Holdings LLC of Dearborn, which is owned by Ford, makes the complete console. The all-plastic product eliminates the previous need for metal brackets and uses Pittsburgh-based Nova Chemicals Corp.'s Dylark styrene maleic anhydride. Integrating the bracket reduced the weight by more than 5 pounds, cut $7 from the assembly labor costs and opened up more space in storage compartments.
The Flex also had another four parts that made the list of finalists for the awards:
c A capless refueling system that uses a glass-filled nylon and is set to be introduced on all new Ford models by 2009.
c An integrated roof shade, headliner and air-duct system using one injection molded part in place of a typical system with more than 12 different parts. The final headliner module, made of a polycarbonate/ABS resin blend, reduced weight by a pound, cut costs by $13.41 per part and cut $2.45 million in tooling costs by eliminating the need for additional molds.
c An optional refrigerator for the rear seat's center console made with structural glass-filled polypropylene with thermoplastic polyolefin exterior panels.
c A black acrylic exterior applique that houses the electronics for a keypad used with keyless entry, but blends into the pillar trim to give the Flex its unique ``floating roof'' look.
SPE also noted ambient lighting, the expanded PP core in the head restraint and an injection molded armrest that combined an ABS substrate, PVC skin and urethane foam.
``[Ford] not only tried new things, but the sheer number of technologies on this one vehicle was astounding,'' Ciliberti said.
Other awards included:
Body exterior: Ford received the award for an optional integrated rocker molding and running board on the Escape sport utility vehicle. The blow molded running board is made by ABC Group Inc. of Toronto with a 30 percent glass-filled PP provided by ABC's sister company Saflex Polymers Ltd. The board is a one-piece part, compared with the 12 separate parts used previously, and includes body side molding, attachment brackets and the step. The part reduces weight by 8.6 pounds and is $1.75 cheaper than previous running boards. ABC also made the tools for the project.
Chassis/hardware/powertrain: Daimler AG of Stuttgart, Germany, won for the first thermoplastic oil-pan module on a commercial passenger vehicle: an injection molded nylon part on its Mercedes C Class sedans. G. Bruss GmbH of Hamburg, Germany, molds the pan using DuPont Zytel. The oil pan also includes an integrated oil baffle and windage tray and saves more than 2 pounds in weight and about 20 percent of the cost through improved manufacturing efficiency. The nylon pan replaced an aluminum pan on the four-cylinder cars.
Environmental: Ford introduced the first seat cushion using a soy-based urethane blend in its Mustang sports car in August 2007 and now is using soy foam blends in more than 5 million cars annually. The seats are supplied by Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich., using a soy blend from Urethane Soy Systems Co. of Volga, S.D., and foam molded by Renosol Corp. of Saline, Mich. The companies began researching the potential of using soy oil in a urethane blend in 2002 and can replace up to 25 percent of the traditional urethane with the soy-based resin.
Materials: Detroit-based General Motors Corp.'s Saab cars won for GM's use of slush molded thermoplastic elastomer on the instrument panel of its 9-7X SUV. Inteva Products LLC of Troy, Mich. formerly the interiors unit of Delphi Corp. developed the TPE blend, which could be slush molded for an instrument panel skin. Slush molding was the industry standard used to make PVC skins, and is still a preferred process for suppliers who have the equipment in-house. Inteva licensed the technology to A. Schulman Inc. of Fairlawn, Ohio, which sells the blend under the Invision SLX trade name. FET Engineering Inc. of Bardstown, Ky., was the mold maker for the project.
Performance and customization: GM's Corvette ZR1 model picked up the prize for its hood assembly using a dual-weave carbon-fiber composite. The 12-pound hood, molded by Plasan Carbon Composites of Bennington, Vt., also integrates a PC window to show off the engine. The automaker and supplier brought the hood to production within 12 months.
Safety: Ford's Focus compact car received the award for its use of polystyrene foam used for head-impact protection. The foam is supplied by Grupo Antolin-North America Inc. of Auburn Hills, Mich., using Impaxx-brand PS from Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich. The foam is 25 percent lighter than its alternative products and reduces overall cost because the company eliminates tooling costs by using computer-guided wire cutting of foam blocks.
Lifetime Achievement Award: SPE honored Frank Macher, a former executive at automotive suppliers including Collins & Aikman Corp., Federal Mogul Corp. and ITT Automotive. Macher is now chief executive officer and managing partner of consulting group FMAC & Associates LLC of Ann Arbor, Mich. During his tenure at Federal Mogul, Macher led the company's restructuring efforts to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At ITT, he led the company's investments in fluid-handling, connectors and defense businesses.