DETROIT - DaimlerChrysler's recent announcement that it would make injection molded hardtops for its Jeep Wrangler sport-utilities signaled new promise for plastics suppliers.
The decision could be the first step toward expanding the use of plastic for vehicle bodies.
'We have to crawl before we can walk, and then we'll have to walk before we can run,' said Thomas Moore, vice president of Daim-lerChrysler's Liberty and Tech-nical Affairs, the automaker's advanced development center in Madison Heights, Mich.
Suppliers are nonetheless optimistic, and DaimlerChrysler clearly is looking ahead.
Last month, equipment supplier Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. unveiled its 100,000-square-foot Detroit Technical Center in Novi, Mich. The center's showpiece - more than 85 feet long and dominating the building - is a one-of-a-kind Husky injection press.
The two-platen machine is among the largest in the world, with a clamping force of 8,800 tons. It is capable of molding 145 pounds of thermoplastic resin in a single shot.
DaimlerChrysler requested the press. The automaker and Con-cord, Ontario-based injection molder Decoma International Inc. have a team of about 20 people testing material and parts at the Husky center.
The automaker first announced at the Frankfurt auto show in September 1997 that it wanted to build vehicles with all-plastic bodies. That is still a rarity in the auto market.
Plastic-body vehicles at General Motors' Saturn subsidiary use sheets of hanging steel behind the plastic body panels for added strength. DaimlerChrysler, working with eight outside suppliers, wants to do without most of that metal.
Five years ago, Moore and the team from Liberty had asked Husky about building a press with a 20,000-ton clamping force. One year ago, once DaimlerChrysler's plans were firm, Husky was asked to downsize that requirement to 8,800 tons.
DaimlerChrysler wanted the machine running within 12 months, said Trefor Jones, regional manager of the Detroit Technical Center. A Husky team had about 10 months to build the press.
Now DaimlerChrysler is leasing a third of Husky's Novi building for its own development work. The automaker signed a one-year agreement, with an option for another three years, Jones said.
A WAYS OFF
Husky, based in Bolton, On-tario, did not divulge the cost of building the press. Other sources familiar with the project tabbed the total at between $9 million and $10 million. However, Jones said Husky invested $28 million in the building and equipment.
'If it's a success, we hope to have other customers join up here,' Jones said. 'We wanted a center where customers can work with large-tonnage presses or install pilot-plant projects.'
DaimlerChrysler has not committed to a production vehicle wrapped in plastic. The carmaker has trotted out several concept vehicles, including a sports car and a Dodge Intrepid sedan prototype, which use thermoplastic body panels.
DaimlerChrysler's new president, Jim Holden, said plastic panels could meet company goals of reducing vehicle costs and increasing fuel efficiency. But he cautioned that a production vehicle might not reach the road for five to 10 years.
Still, Holden said, the company is fulfilling its dream of finding a 'whole new way of building automobiles.' And he took a subtle swipe at GM and Ford Motor Co., both of which recently announced plans to sell pickup truck boxes made of plastic.
'It's not just a bed liner or a box for a truck bed,' Holden said. 'We're putting out something much larger than that.'
COSTS AND BENEFITS
The project to build all-plastic body panels would be a success even if no cars ever see the road, said Decoma CEO Al Power. The company can transfer the process control, engineering and tooling knowledge to other work, he said.
'If the project was shut down today and deemed to be a failure, then we've still gained know-how and learning,' Power said. 'No matter the outcome, the benefits are enormous.'
DaimlerChrysler is counting on in-mold color on thermoplastic panels to cut out the cost burden of painted vehicles. Paint lines cost anywhere from $200 million to $500 million at an assembly plant, said Peter Rosenfeld, DaimlerChrysler vice president of supplier management.
But issues remain with thermoplastic panels, Moore said. DaimlerChrysler still must produce a vehicle with the high-gloss finish consumers want from in-mold color. And it must provide sufficient impact strength, he said.
Another molder, Cascade Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., helped with initial development but is no longer on the project, Rosenfeld said. DaimlerChrysler had used Cascade's injection unit, two Battenfeld presses mounted in tandem. Both presses have a clamping force of 4,500 tons. The carmaker found that a single-unit press, built to its specifications, would advance the project, Rosenfeld said.
A SMALL STEP
DaimlerChrysler will consider selling a vehicle with a plastic body in developed and developing countries, Rosenfeld said. But first, the company plans to take a small step with the Wrangler hardtops. Current hardtops are molded from sheet molding compound, a different type of plastic.
By September 2000, the automaker would like to produce limited-run white hardtops at the Husky plant, said Larry Oswald, executive engineer for body panels at DaimlerChrysler Liberty. The carmaker only makes about 5,000 white hardtops annually from a production of about 90,000 vehicles, he said.
Other hardtop colors will continue to be produced in sheet molding compound by Cambridge Industries Inc. of Madison Heights, Mich., Oswald said.
But before DaimlerChrysler commits to hardtops, field tests must be conducted over the next six months in extreme climates, he said. The Husky press will mold about 50 prototype hardtops for testing.
'There's more than a 50 percent chance we'll make the hardtops,' Oswald said. 'All our work to this point has been positive.'
Compared with sheet molding compound hardtops, the injection molded pieces would weigh 30 percent less and reduce tooling costs by 70 percent, Holden said. The Wrangler hardtop can be molded in two parts instead of five, he added.
An inner hardtop structure will be fixed to the outer shell through flame treatment. The use of an in-mold clear coating will add a speckled and grained finish to the part.
Other materials, such as aluminum or lightweight steel, are much more expensive and less feasible from a cost standpoint, Holden said.
If successful, the Wrangler hardtops will be molded by Decoma at the Husky center and shipped to DaimlerChrysler's Toledo, Ohio, assembly plant. The automaker plans to launch the hardtops for the Wrangler's 2001 model year.
The technical center includes three more injection presses with clamping forces of 1,000, 550 and 100 tons. The company also will install a 4,400-ton press there in six months, Jones said.
The move is part of a larger shift for Husky. The company plans to phase out operations by year end at its Pittsfield, Mass., plant, which assembles large-tonnage presses, and move its North American base for large-tonnage presses to Novi, Jones said.
'Many of our customers for large tonnage presses are in the automotive industry,' he said.
Several other companies, including automotive supplier Plastic Omnium SA and boat maker Macro Plastics, use injection presses as large or larger than the Husky machine.
Still, the Husky press leaves onlookers agape at its power and dexterity. Material and parts blithely slip through the lumbering, heavy metal press.
Said Moore: 'It looks like an elephant dancing with a ballerina.'