To celebrate Plastics News' 20th anniversary, we continue our weekly countdown of the Top 20 issues of lasting impact, as reported in our pages. The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
This week: No. 5: The boom in automotive plastics
Try to ignore, for a moment, all the bad news about the auto industry today: the lack of sales, the shuttered assembly lines, the bankrupt suppliers.
Instead, here's a number 137.
That's the increase, in overall pounds, of the amount of plastic inside the average North American vehicle since 1990. Cars being made today will have an average of about 331 pounds of thermoplastic and composite thermoset resins. About 20 years ago, that number was 194.
Plastic has steadily shown up in new places on cars, and in parts that were not even made in large numbers just a few years ago.
In 1989, air bags were just starting to become standard equipment and only on the driver's side and they were not required until 1999. Since then, plastics have gone into air-bag support brackets, and engineers have tweaked the resin covering them. Today, engineers are figuring out new ways to package them in seating and beneath the plastic trim on interior columns.
Aluminum was still the material of choice under the hood for air-intake manifolds 20 years ago. The first major breakthroughs for nylon did not occur until the early 1990s. Chrysler, for example, put its first nylon manifold on the Dodge Neon in 1993. Now molders are trying to see how many more engine parts they can consolidate into the manifold module and are moving thermoplastic into new products like oil pans.
And in North America, the use of high density polyethylene to replace steel in fuel tanks had stalled at less than 20 percent of the market before 1990. Now, more than 75 percent of fuel tanks made in North America are plastic.
In 2007, while steel still made up more than half of the weight of the average car 2,237 pounds on a 4,076-pound vehicle plastics and composites combined made up the second-most-used material by weight, according to a report by Thomas Kevin Swift, chief economist of the American Chemistry Council. The average car used 322 pounds of iron castings and 313 pounds of aluminum, compared with 331 pounds of plastics.
And plastics use is expanding, Swift pointed out, with polycarbonate being considered to replace some glass; thermoplastic body panels finding new fans; and nylon finding more and more places under the hood.
That's not to say the ride has been a smooth one. The past 20 years are littered with companies that fell by the wayside, while the expanding global market has forced firms to open up first in Mexico, then in Asia.
Just consider Chrysler's one-time Acustar plastics molding division sold to Textron Inc. in 1993, then in 2001 sold to Collins & Aikman Corp., which ended up entering bankruptcy in 2005. A few of the plants were picked up by other molders like International Automotive Components, but others closed with C&A.
But despite the headlines and current economic conditions for the global auto industry, insiders see more opportunities for plastics to gain ground, especially with more emphasis on fuel efficiency, electric cars and lighter-weight vehicles as long as they can survive the current bad news of low sales, shuttered assembly lines and supplier bankruptcies.