3-D suction blow molding has some major advantages to make the hollow, complex shapes that become automotive air ducts. And plastic ducts are replacing metal and rubber in some turbocharged applications, because of the weight saving opportunities.
Looking at the latest estimates from automotive experts, the opportunity for plastics suppliers is about to punch the accelerator.
In 2014, about 29.2 million light vehicle engines around the world were turbocharged, or about 33 percent of the total, according to IHS Autodatabase.
In 2020, IHS estimates the total will be 56.2 million engines, or 50 percent of the total.
“The growth this market is expecting between today and 2020 is huge, and the supplier base to make this part is limited,” said Doug Madsen, managing director of ActuaPlast North America Inc. in Livonia. “There will be a lot of growing pains. It's a steep learning curve.”
Much of the opportunity is in the world's two largest vehicle markets, China and North America. That's because the trend has already played out in the No. 3 market: Europe.
According to Honeywell, 69 percent of engines in Europe are already turbocharged, and that will rise only marginally, to 73 percent, in 2020.
In North America, on the other hand, in 2015 only 23 percent of engines were turbocharged, but that will rise to 39 percent in 2020. (In China, Honeywell's estimates are 28 percent in 2015 and 47 percent in 2020.)
ActuaPlast's roots are in Europe — its parent company ActuaPlast SAS is based in La Forêt-Fouesnant, France. Company owner and CEO Ronan Perennou started the company in 2001, and it serves a very specific niche: helping vehicle manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers to commercialize new blow molding technology.
“We do product development, prototyping, pre-production, low-volume production and production support for Tier 1 suppliers,” Madsen said. “We do not want to be a Tier 1 supplier. We want to assist Tier 1 suppliers.”
ActuaPlast employs about 110 people in France, and it opened its Livonia factory in July 2014. Production in Livonia started in January 2015, and today the plant has 10 employees and three sophisticated blow molding machines. The newest, a model called the ASPI from S.T. Soffiaggio Tecnica srl in Monza, Italy, started production just over a month ago.
It's the latest in 3-D suction blow technology from S.T., and ActuaPlast held a special event for select customers on March 15-16 to show off the new equipment.
The exclusive guest list included automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers. The hosts were ActuaPlast, S.T., DuPont Performance Polymers and H.A. Industries, a local specialist in equipment for welding plastic parts. The companies touted the event as a conference to take the mystery out of blow molding.
DuPont played a major role in the seminar, including local experts and a teleconference link with the company's technical staff in Meyrn, Switzerland, who answered customers' questions about suction blow molding materials and processing.
DuPont sees big opportunities in suction blow molding for two of its engineering resins: Zytel nylon and Hytrel thermoplastic elastomers, which can withstand the hostile environment under the hoods of turbocharged engines. DuPont has two blow molding machines in Switzerland and offers customers the results of its years of research into the process.
S.T. Managing Partner Martin Graziadei highlighted the latest features in the ASPI machine, including a tie-barless design and specially designed head for quick mold and material changes, and sophisticated controls that can precisely dose material, putting resin exactly where it is needed in the parison to control the thickness of the part.
That helps to minimize scrap, which traditionally is a major expense for industrial blow molders. The opportunity for material savings with the new technology can pay for itself in just a few years, Graziadei said — even for a machine that can cost around 600,000 euros ($684,300).
Previous efforts to popularize 3-D suction blow molding in North America were also announced with high expectations, but in the end they fell flat.
Around 2002-2003, experts thought the U.S. automotive market would embrace turbocharged diesel engines, like in Europe. That never happened.
Then the Great Recession put the development of innovative new automotive technologies on hold.
Today, though, the opportunity is real, according to the partners at the open house. Automakers are eager to try any new technology that reduces weight and improves fuel economy, and the plastics supply chain is in a strong position to assist.
“Europe has led this shift. We've got to catch up,” Madsen said.
“We are convinced that the same trend is going to happen in the U.S., and also in the Asian market,” Graziadei said. “This conversion is going to happen now.”