Will the Pink Panther ride in the back of Ford's new Explorer Sport Trac sport-utility pickup?
Owens Corning would like it, says Jack Phillips, general manager of the company's new automotive solutions branch.
'After 27 days on the job, it's on my list of things to look into,' Phillips said of some brand presence in the vehicle.
Owens Corning, which uses the cartoon character and a trademark flamingo-pink color to advertise its glass fibers, is a major player in the first composite material cargo bed to appear on a production sport-utility.
The Toledo, Ohio, company's specially coated glass fibers account for half of the mix of polyester sheet-molded composite that Budd Co. of Troy, Mich., compounds for the Sport Trac. Sheet-molded composite combines plastic, reinforcing fibers and mineral filler.
Phillips believes a tie-in to the Sport Trac and its sheet-molded composite cargo box could add value to the innovative assembly in customers' eyes.
LOOKS LIKE A BED LINER
Without the brand, sport-utility buyers might assume they were looking at a typical pickup bed liner. The Sport Trac's composite cargo area is a typical black, textured and ribbed structure that looks much like the plastic liners offered by aftermarket installers.
But the 70-pound structural part, molded by Budd at its plant in North Baltimore, Ohio, replaces a standard metal truck bed prone to dents, corrosion and scratches. A metal bed also would require complex welding and assembly of more than 30 parts.
The sheet-molded composite bed is coupled with manufacturer-painted sheet-molded composite fenders to provide a single, strong rear module for the Explorer Sport Trac. A steel D-pillar assembly at the rear holds the tailgate, which is made using traditional steel but with a sheet-molded composite liner.
Overall, the sheet-molded composite component saves about 20 percent in weight compared with a steel assembly and a significant amount in tooling cost for the limited-run vehicle. About 65,000 units are planned for the $25,000 Sport Trac's first year of production, with vehicles hitting dealer showrooms late this month and customer deliveries expected to begin in March.
Sheet-molded composite is more expensive than steel, but its lower cost for tooling makes the material a viable choice for runs of up to about 120,000 units, said Mike Dorney, Budd Co. sales and marketing vice president. That makes the material good for high-value, limited-run vehicles.
TESTED 14 YEARS AGO
Ford engineer Pete Miskech, a specialist in production body structures and safety for Ford, said the sheet-molded composite concept was tested by Ford some 14 years ago in 400 pickups. That was at a time when sheet-molded composite was just being introduced in automotive applications, and the largest production part was a small oil pan.
Workers at Ford's Louisville, Ky., assembly plant had the experimental sheet-molded composite truck boxes delivered without explanation and were able to put the components together with existing tools and torques on the unmodified assembly line. The pilot project even sold some of the trucks to unsuspecting buyers.
'They were buying Ford Explorers and they didn't realize they were buying a $50,000 prototype box,' Miskech said.
The experiment was a resounding success - truck owners who had the plastic boxes refused to return even one of them to Ford for teardown and evaluation. But the time wasn't right to move the sheet-molded composite box into production.
'We had virtually no product we could put this thing on,' Miskech said. New vehicle lines were either already in production or had steel tooling ordered and could not be modified to accept the plastic bed.
'We decided to put the technology on-shelf and create an evidence book about the entire process, with lessons learned,' he said.
NEW LIFE FOR PLANT
When the time was right, the application was plucked out of hibernation.
Its wake-up call also has provided new life for Budd's plant, which got its start in the mid-1970s.
Plant output had slumped in recent years, but the new focus on truck beds and fenders has led Budd to make more than $30 million in capital improvements and to initiate an employment boost that could see as many as 450 workers at the plant by 2002.
Half of the UAW-organized plant's revenues are expected to come from the Sport Trac cargo bed and a matching tonneau cover; 30 percent will come from GM truck components and 20 percent from engine cam and valve covers made for a number of manufacturers, Budd executives said.
At least six large new presses are scheduled to be installed at the North Baltimore factory, which may seek more high-value, limited-run business, Budd officials said.