In the early 1990s, Eaton Corp.'s plastics unit was turning out high-volume interior and exterior trim parts, but its leaders were not certain if that was the kind of business on which the company could build its future.
“That kind of market had been around for many, many years, and it was noticeable that our return on business was getting less and less,” said Stephen Roberts, manager of global plastics engineering.
So the company evaluated where its strengths were, and what would be a better field for its plastics. The company, based in Cleveland, is more widely known in automotive for its powertrain components, transmissions, chassis and other functional parts. It made sense for its plastics to focus on the same area of the car.
So Eaton shifted into highly engineered parts under the hood, becoming part of a shift from metal to plastic for some parts, especially the oil-suction tube, which connects the oil pump to the oil pan.
Now the company sees itself as leading another leap for plastics under the hood, this time in integrated thermoplastic oil pans that offer automakers lighter weight and more integrated parts. That new business may lead to more global production.
The shift is being prompted by automakers that are anxious to shave weight from their cars to meet increased fuel-economy standards in North America while facing new emissions controls in Europe, Roberts said in an Oct. 6 telephone interview. Eaton has two thermoplastic oil pans in production already — used on Cummins diesel engines — and is ramping up for future vehicles.
Traditionally, oil pans have been made of steel or aluminum. Thermoset plastics also have begun to see more business. A thermoplastic oil pan promises weight savings over metal, but the real selling point is that molders can integrate more parts into it.
A plastic oil pan, for instance can be delivered with gaskets, seals, baffles, heaters, sensors and the suction tube that first launched Eaton's new business focus. The more parts that suppliers can integrate, the lower the production costs and complexity for automakers, Roberts said.
Depending on the amount of integration, automakers could cut 10-15 percent of the weight for a basic oil-pan configuration, or 40 percent or more for one with more parts. If even more parts, such as oil filters, can be added to a system, it would lighten the weight even more.
“The limitation that we see for us right now is that we don't have a manufacturing footprint in North America,” Roberts said.
Eaton's plastics expertise covers a range of processing methods — injection molding, compression injection molding, gas-assist molding, suction blow molding — but production is centered in Europe with manufacturing in Brierly Hill, England, and Chomutov, the Czech Republic.
The company was making plans to expand manufacturing to the U.S. in 2008 — in part because of increased interest in plastic oil pans — but backed off when the economy and auto production cooled down. It is still considering expansion, according to Roberts.
“That would have been our entry, but that's not to say we aren't looking at other opportunities,” he said.
There also are growth opportunities in Europe to transfer more powertrain parts to plastic, Roberts said, and Eaton expects to be at the front as lightweighting and emissions requirements push automakers to reconsider their traditional way of making parts.