It was supposed to be the breakthrough. It was touted as the car that would boost plastics use in automotive by 60 percent.
That car General Motors Corp.'s Lumina minivan is long dead and GM itself is battling to survive as demand for its products drops.
One of the suppliers to the Lumina, Eagle-Picher Industries Inc., ended up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Another two Thyssen Krupp Automotive AG's Budd Co., and GenCorp. Inc.'s automotive unit have been sold. Only one of those primary suppliers Magna International Inc.'s Decoma division is still widely considered to be a strong performer.
But that doesn't mean that the predictions for plastics growth in the auto industry made in 1989 did not come true. Both the industries and people within the industries have adapted to continuous changes, finding new parts and new business.
I do think there were constant changes that occurred: changes in products, in new [automakers] coming to North America, in new [suppliers] who came here, said Mike Dorney, now director of global business development for Lacks Enterprises Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Despite shortcomings of the Lumina and problems at individual companies, plastics use in the auto industry has posted significant gains, climbing from an average of about 190 pounds per vehicle in 1989 to about 330 today.
There is more technology being used in today's cars from overmolding to multishot injection molding. Nylon is now being used in place of aluminum under the hood, while structural plastics are replacing steel beams throughout the car.
And people and companies alike have adjusted to meet those changing demands.
In 1989, Dorney had just moved from engineering to sales within Budd and was working with GM to help the firms develop and test sheet molding compound for use in vehicle substrates.
In 1989, as in today's auto climate, automakers were looking for ways to reduce weight. Plastics, first tested in the Pontiac Fiero, was seen as the next big thing in auto body panels, with SMC and other composites getting the green light for production.
Weight [concern] comes and goes and it all depends on what they need at any time, said Al DeVore, who began his career in the design unit at Ford Motor Co. By the late 1980s, he had moved to supplier Mark IV Industries Inc.'s North American auto group, eventually becoming its president. The concerns wax and wane depending on the economic climate.
DeVore has spent 31 years in the auto industry, moving from Mark IV to a brief tenure as chief executive officer of Blue Water Automotive Systems Inc. in 2006, to Crown Group Inc. in 2007 and he is now senior director at Advanced Manufacturing Group, a turnaround consulting firm that focuses on operational improvements.
If you believe that the only constant in life is change, then none of this should surprise you, including the adaptability of American workers, DeVore said. Although there's been a tremendous amount of change, there's always been a constant too in terms of demands for quality and performance.
Some changes have been easy to see, from the mix of cars minivans in the late 1980s, the dominance of the sport utility vehicle in the 1990s and early 2000s and now green cars to the downward slide in market share of the traditional Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler LLC even as new business grew with Asian and European automakers.
To work in the global industry, you have to have a global presence, Dorney said. You used to be able to have an office in Troy [Mich.] and be able to cover the market. Now you're dealing with a lot more customers. There's the big three in Japan, plus the minor Japanese companies, there are the other Asians, the Germans and even Eastern Europe.
And there are changes behind the scenes, he said. Engineering information used to come as physical drawings on paper, with information held in filing cabinets. Now there are electronic files that allow more people to provide input and speed development.
Dorney said the biggest lesson for him of the past 20 years has been about the importance of a good team. And even with the turmoil in today's auto industry, he's not ready to panic or give up. The industry will survive.
Everybody keeps saying that after this next crisis or that crisis, things will get better, said DeVore.
There's always another crisis beyond that and things get worse. It's about perception. You have to have some level of optimism.