LIVONIA, MICH. — The first time Magna International Inc. talked to Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. about the possibility of making a lightweight, all-olefinic tailgate for one of its vehicles was in the late 1990s.
The carmaker was interested, but there were problems with producing the system at high enough volumes to warrant the change from the standard materials.
But this year, the thermoplastic materials, the processes and the automaker were all ready to make the switch, and the 2014 Nissan Rogue crossover vehicle went into production in Smyrna, Tenn., with a tailgate using thermoplastic polyolefin for the outer panel and polypropylene for the inner panel — coming in 30 percent lighter than stamped steel and cutting fuel use by 10 percent.
The tailgate won Nissan both the Grand Award and the Body Exterior Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division's Automotive Innovation Awards, presented Nov. 6 in Livonia.
"Some innovations take less time," said Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process development for Magna. "This one was 12 years in the making."
Magna, based in Aurora, Ontario, molds the panels at its Decostar plant in Carrollton, Ga., using long-glass-fiber-reinforced PP from Advanced Composites Inc. of Sidney, Ohio, and TPO from LyondellBasell of Rotterdam, Netherlands. Kyowa Machining Co. Ltd. is the tooling supplier.
Tokyo-based Nissan expects to use the thermoplastic lift gate on more than 130,000 vehicles. In addition to saving weight and fuel, using plastics allowed the company to integrate a spoiler into the exterior panel, giving Nissan designers more flexibility while reducing the number of parts.
Nissan also took home the top award in the materials category for the injection molded thermoplastic vulcanizate skin used on the instrument panel of its 2013 Sentra sedan.
The material supplied by Asahi Kasei Chemicals Corp. of Tokyo allows molder and toolmaker Calsonic Kansei Corp. of Saitama, Japan, to use injection molding for the skin, rather than slush molding, vacuum forming or powder slush molding, which simplifies production.
The system also has a lower scrap rate than that of slush molding or vacuum forming — 5 percent compared with 20 percent or more.
Parts that have won awards in SPE's annual competition often go on to prove themselves far beyond their initial launch.
The 2013 Hall of Fame award — presented to parts that have been in continuous service for at least 15 years — went to Ford Motor Co. for its sheet molded compound front-end module, which made its debut on the 1996 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable models.
Prior to their large-volume debut for Ford, front-end modules were typically low-volume, multipiece steel or aluminum structures used to support the radiator and other parts at the front of the car.
In the mid-1990s, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford began looking at alternatives, eventually coming up with a compression molded composite, which enabled part integration allowing the carmaker to eliminate 22 major subcomponents and 27 fasteners per vehicle.
It adopted SMC for cost, weight and functional performance, and the industry has since shifted to glass-mat thermoplastics; injection and compression molded, long-fiber thermoplastic composites; and inline compounded composites, continually improving performance and reducing weight.
"Switching to SMC on the original program allowed us to eliminate a significant number of parts," said John Young, a product-development engineer for Ford. "We ended up with a single 'ready-to-install' structural carrier with self-locating fasteners."
That allowed improved flow on the vehicle assembly line, he said, while the original program won Ford both the Chassis/Hardware prize and the Grand Award from SPE more than 15 years ago.
Since its debut, the plastic front-end module has become an industry standard, used continuously at Ford for 17 years and appearing on 5 million Taurus-based vehicles worldwide, in addition to being used by automakers globally. It is now produced in thermoplastics and thermosets.
"The integrated FEM has proliferated widely because polymer composites allow engineers to mold-in features and locators and to integrate a number of previously separate subsystems and functions into a single component that saves money, reduces weight and provides for faster, more accurate and less costly assembly," said Nippani Rao, SPE Hall of Fame co-chairman.
Other awards went to:
* General Motors Co. of Detroit won the Process/Assembly/Enabling Technology category for the 2014 Corvette. The Corvette uses a new process, developed by Plasan Carbon Composites of Wixom, Mich., to produce carbon-fiber composites far more quickly than traditional autoclave manufacturing.
The "pressure press technology" uses equipment supplied by Globe Machine Co. of Tacoma, Wash., material from Toray Industries Inc. of Tokyo and tooling from Weber Manufacturing Technologies Inc. of Midland, Ontario. The technology can produce parts in 17 minutes — which is fast enough to be used on a car with high production volumes, unlike traditional processing.
The Corvette Stingray uses carbon-fiber parts from Plasan for the hood and roof.
* The 2014 Chrysler Group LLC Jeep Cherokee won the award for Body Interior for its thin-wall instrument-panel retainer, molded by Intertec Systems LLC of Plymouth, Mich.,
The retainer is the first one in North America coming in at 2 millimeters thick, a reduction from the typical 3mm retainer in past Jeep models. The part saves 1.7 pounds per vehicle.
Chrysler, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., worked extensively with digital modeling and mold-flow analysis to design and develop the part, along with its suppliers — Intertec; Sabic Innovative Plastics, which provided the Stamax resin; and tooling supplier Windsor Mold Group of Windsor, Ontario.
* Ford's 2013 Fusion and the 2013 Mondeo won the Chassis/Hardware division with a single-piece energy absorber for the front bumper beam. Magna, the system supplier and processor, used Sabic's Xenoy resin.
The energy absorber can meet crash-test requirements for both pedestrian safety and bumper damage — meaning that the automaker does not have to design and build separate absorbers to meet standards in multiple global locations. Having one absorber also eliminates the need for different beams and fascias for different regions, which reduces costs and complexity.
* GM's Chevrolet Spark electric vehicle won the award for Electrical Systems. Its battery enclosure uses a new production process for vinyl ester prepreg with a computerized layup pattern, automatic die cutting, laser alignment of patterns and insert molding of several attachments along with compression molding under vacuum. A123 Systems Inc. of Livonia, Mich., is the system supplier and Continental Structural Plastics of Troy, Mich., is the tooling supplier. Cytec Industries Inc. of Woodland Park, N.J., is the material supplier and Century Tool & Gage of Fenton, Mich., made the tools.
The enclosure contains a lithium-ion battery pack with 190 kilograms of batteries, 30 kilograms of hoses, and wiring and electronics. Using vinyl ester allowed GM to reduce the mass by 40 percent compared with a conventional metal system.
* The Powertrain Award went to Audi AG for the 2011 Q5's turbocharge air duct.
The duct production system, developed by Röchling Automotive of Haren, Germany, blow molds the duct all in one piece, eliminating the need for four metal clamps and three rubber hoses while cutting costs by 50 percent and dropping 1.4 kilograms of weight.
The all-nylon material, developed by Zeon Corp. of Tokyo along with Röchling, is easier to recycle. Röchling was the system supplier, processor and toolmaker for the project.
* Ford won the Safety award for the side airbag cover on the 2013 Fusion.
The automaker and its suppliers — Autoliv Inc. of Stockholm and Atlantic Precision Products and Great Lakes Mold & Engineering, both based in the Detroit suburb of Shelby Township — had to develop a new housing for the side airbag that would fit onto a thinner seat. That meant it could not use the standard metal enclosure with a top plastic cover.
Instead, the companies developed a smaller plastic enclosure with insert molded metal brackets where needed. The smaller package still meets all safety requirements, but is 300 grams lighter than the traditional package. Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. of Tokyo supplies the thermoplastic polyolefin used in the part.
* The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Roy Sjöberg, who was a key player in three iconic cars — the Corvette, GM's Camaro and Chrysler's original Dodge Viper.
During his 25 years with GM, Sjöberg helped to develop the fiberglass body for early versions of the Corvette and worked on the polyurethane reaction injection molding used for bumper fascia on the 1975 Chevrolet Monza and molded-in-color exterior panels for the Camaro and Cavalier.
At Chrysler, Sjöberg was chief engineer for materials engineering and the executive engineer of the Viper Project, which developed the original Dodge Viper using resin transfer molding for its body panels.