CHICAGO - Steve Pittman has a one-track mind.
'Every day when I get up, I'm thinking about one thing,' he said. 'Replacing metal.'
In recent years Pittman, automotive marketing director for GE Plastics, and his competitors have concentrated on replacing individual glass and metal parts.
Now, the automotive plastics industry is pushing for large functional systems, said Craig Naylor, worldwide vice president for the engineering polymers business at DuPont Co. The industry gathered here for the National Plastics Exposition, held earlier this month.
Taking advantage of the inherent design flexibility and light weight of the material, plastics suppliers are consolidating various parts into large pieces and systems. In some cases, the parts consolidation cuts total costs and makes vehicles easier to assemble.
THE TOUGHEST JOB
The systems push already has been successful in converting car and truck interiors into cocoons of plastic moldings, skins and fibers. The industry wants to accomplish the same thing in other areas, such as under the hood, the powertrain, bumpers and windows.
The toughest job appears to be body panels, where steel still dominates. But even there plastics suppliers are making plans to capture more business.
The industry uses a foot-in-the-door strategy to add more plastic to vehicles. For example, starting with a nylon intake manifold already in a car, a plastics supplier designs an entire air-fuel system. A polycarbonate rear quarter window can lead to plastic windows everywhere but the windshield. A blow-molded bumper beam can be the first step in building all-plastic front and rear bumper assemblies.
At the plastics exposition, which is held every three years, the 82,000 attendees must have wondered at times if they were at an auto show.
HOT CAR, TRUCK MARKET
Exhibitors displayed plastics-intensive vehicles such as the Dodge Viper and Ford Ka. Visitors to the show rated the automotive industry as the hottest plastics market by at least a 3-1 ratio over all others, according to a survey by DuPont Automotive and Plastics News, a sister publication of Automotive News.
Another industry survey released at the show, by the American Plastics Council, also rated the automotive market as the most promising.
DuPont's automotive plastics business, now at more than $1 billion per year in sales, has grown at better than 10 percent annually during the past five years, Naylor said.
The material supplier is targeting a number of applications, including electronics, powertrain, fuel systems, chassis and interiors. The rising electronic content of vehicles, for example, has created a demand for plastics that can handle high under-hood temperatures and resist corrosive chemicals. At the show, DuPont introduced several new materials suitable for connectors and other electrical applications.
Because of its light weight and its cost advantages, nylon has replaced aluminum in many intake manifolds. DuPont wants to integrate the manifold with nylon fuel rails, air flow sensors, air cleaners and other components into one system.
Delphi Automotive Systems, Ford Automotive Products Operations, Robert Bosch Corp., Denso International America, and Siemens Automotive Corp. are all developing integrated systems, Naylor said.
The automotive plastics industry is also coming up with new types of plastics.
For example, Polypropylene, because it is relatively cheap and can be recycled, is also being specified for wider use in interiors.
Another area where plastics has had only spotty success is windows. Plastic windows tend to scratch and form a haze.
At the show, GE Plastics and Bayer AG of Germany announced they would invest $40 million in the next five years in a joint venture to develop and test polycarbonate windows.
The two resin producers plan to research a number of hard coatings.
GE Plastics, which does not break out its automotive sales, currently has an average of about 44 pounds of plastic on all cars and light-duty trucks in North America, Pittman said.
The company aims to increase its content to 60 pounds per vehicle by 2001.
Overall, plastics account for only 7 percent of the average weight of North American vehicles, or 345 pounds, and that looks like plenty of opportunity for plastic companies.