Delphi goes down under for fuel tanks

Australian plant is part of move toward complete fuel systems

DETROIT - Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. will thermoform fuel tanks at a new $13 million plant in Australia aimed at tapping into business in Asia and the South Pacific region.

The plant in Somerton, Australia, represents part of the world's biggest auto supplier's move to produce a complete fuel system in either metal or plastic. The Troy, Mich., company has had extensive experience with metal tanks, but recently expanded its offerings to make plastic units.

The company already has contracts in hand for the tanks, and production is scheduled to begin in August, said spokesman Brad Maggart.

"Naturally, (the plant) will be scaleable for expansion and will provide capability to promote additional growth," he said.

Not just tanks

The thermoforming line is only a part of the Australian expansion, which was announced Oct. 25. The 55,000-square-foot facility also will include production of evaporative emission canisters and rack and pinion steering gears.

It will be the second Delphi operation in Australia. The company does some plastic processing at its existing site in Clayton, where it makes fuel pump modules, catalytic converters and injection fuel filter assemblies, Maggart said.

Delphi's Chassis and Energy Management division has stamped metal fuel tanks for years at a plant in Flint, Mich. It lost out in 1998, though, when then-parent company General Motors chose to put plastic tanks in some of its vehicles, and issued contracts to some of Delphi's competitors, including Visteon Corp., then part of Ford Motor Co.

In taking on thermoforming, in which tanks are created by pressing a heated sheet of plastic over a mold, rather than using the blow molding process, Delphi aims to create a more complete fuel system. It will mold the tanks around various components, such as the fuel pump, so that those parts and their connections are within the multilayer plastic barrier.

Any leaks at connection points inside the tank are then trapped and re-used, decreasing emissions to help meet increasingly tough pollution standards.

"That's been the direction of most of the makers," said consultant Scott Upham, president of Providata Automotive of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Adding value

By doing a complete system, parts makers can add value to what would otherwise offer few opportunities for economic gain, he said.

While tank specialists are creating ways to encapsulate components in blow-molded systems, the search for ways to reduce emissions also has increased interest in other production methods, including thermoforming and injection molding.

Delphi also is continuing to offer steel tanks, although most automakers in Europe and North America are shifting toward plastic systems. Upham noted that steel remains in high demand for some developing markets, in which manufacturers are sticking with older production styles.

The Somerton plant is one of two operations planned by Delphi for the Asia Pacific region. It also is planning to open a plant in Thailand making fuel pump parts and brake caliper assemblies, at an estimated cost of about $12 million.

You can reach Rhoda Miel at rmiel@crain.com

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