Plastic sheds its mask

Despite its no-frills reputation, plastic has a great future, automotive designers say. But in the future, plastic simply will be plastic — no more making it look like leather or wood.

“We can make plastic look really good, so why pretend it is leather or wood?” asks John Hartnell, Ford Motor Co.’s director of color and trim.

Ralph Gilles, a DaimlerChrysler studio director, says: “Done right, plastic can be exciting. There are lots of fun things you can do with it. Why spend a lot of money making it look like something it’s not? Let’s celebrate it.”

Inspired by the colorful Apple iMac personal computer, automotive designers will use plastic in translucent form.

“Only two materials can be translucent: glass and plastic,” says Peter Davis, director of advanced interior design at General Motors.

A few years ago, Davis brought the protective covering of a disposable razor into a European design studio. At the time, he said: “There’s something here. I just don’t know what.”

Soon after, Pininfarina unveiled a concept vehicle with a translucent instrument panel. Other automakers have followed.

The vehicle of the future will contain different uses of traditional materials and new materials. Fabrics will be recycled. And plastics will be assembled so they can be separated easily and recycled.

“The environment will (influence) materials of the future,” says Pat Murray, vice president of the technology and design division of Lear Corp.

Young people, especially in Europe, will lead the environmental trend. Animal rights activists who oppose the use of leather have prompted companies such as Lear to consider alternatives.

Suppliers also are trying new techniques, such as leather-fabric combinations, to reduce the amount of leather required, according to John Phillips, Lear’s director of advanced product development and production design.

Designers also are considering the use of waste products such as crushed almond shells or sawdust, which can be compressed into slabs.

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