TRW Inc. has added to its menu of airbag inflator systems with the acquisition of helium gas inflator technology from AirBelt Systems LLC of Bel Air, Calif.
Obtaining the new technology positions TRW to maintain its lead as the world's largest airbag producer, said Douglas Campbell, vice president of engineering for the company's Inflatable Restraint Systems unit in Washington, Mich.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Most airbags currently use a sodium azide propellant to inflate. But use of such systems has peaked because automakers are looking for cleaner, more flexible systems, such as a helium gas inflator, Campbell said.
Campbell said there is interest by automakers in the new helium system. He said he expects the AirBelt-developed technology to be installed on cars beginning in late 1999.
He said the helium inflator systems probably will be produced at TRW's existing airbag plants, but declined to be more specific.
FEND OFF COMPETITORS
Scott Upham, president of Providata Inc., a Southgate, Mich., auto industry consulting firm, said the licensing agreement between TRW and AirBelt clearly will help TRW keep airbag rivals at bay in a highly competitive business.
'It rounds out TRW's portfolio of inflator technologies,' Upham said. Campbell agreed, noting that the helium technology is one of five different inflator systems TRW can offer automakers.
TRW has been working with AirBelt since last year on the new system. Campbell said that the system has been thoroughly tested, and that the company is happy with the results.
ADJUST THE FORCE
Upham said the AirBelt system is competitive in terms of cost with other inflator methods, and is likely to help TRW respond to public pressure that airbags be capable of inflating with less force.
Upham said some sodium azide propellant systems will be replaced by the helium gas system, which is cleaner than the traditional systems that ignite azide tablets to form a gas that inflates the airbag.
The AirBelt system stores gas under high pressure and requires no ignition to inflate the bag. When a crash is detected, the gas is released by a valve.
Campbell said the new technology includes the use of a controlling device that can be adjusted to tailor the force with which the bag is deployed.
Airbag makers have also been seeking alternatives to sodium azide because of its volatility in manufacturing. TRW's plants in Arizona have suffered dozens of explosions this decade related to sodium azide.