But the experience in North America and Europe shows that rapid growth in the use of plastic tanks is possible. About 35 percent of North American cars had plastic fuel tanks in 1996. That grew to 65 percent in 2000, and it is 74 percent today, according to ITB Group. About 92 percent of European cars have plastic tanks.
Visteon Corp. of Dearborn, Mich., also sees the Japanese market opening up. A joint venture led by Toyota began producing plastic tanks in Japan recently, says Dave Frey, business-development manager at Visteon. Honda also could take its plastic-fuel-tank expertise from North America to Japan. "We're getting indications that the Japanese market is planning on moving into plastic fuel tanks fairly considerably," Frey says.
He won't say whether Visteon is planning its plastic-fuel-tank push in Japan, but the company has said growth in Asia is a priority.
Visteon blow-molds and thermal-forms plastic fuel tanks. But Visteon has found thermal forming to be a better process when placing components inside the tank, Frey says.
Although Japanese automakers have spent research money on plastic tanks, they haven't put a lot into use, Kopinsky says. "The price of steel and those existing relationships have slowed that," he says.
One thing in TI Automotive's favor is that no steel-tank suppliers make entire fuel systems. TI makes tanks, lines, pumps and sensors.
The Asian push comes on the heels of TI Automotive's reorganization and cost cutting. The company reorganized along global product lines this month, as opposed to the past regional organization.
TI Automotive regions will share more information and research and development will be centered in Germany, Laule says.
The company also is cutting 200 North American jobs through layoffs, retirements and a hiring freeze. No plants are scheduled to close.
TI Automotive, which makes brake-fluid delivery, fuel delivery and air-conditioning systems, recorded $125 million of its $2.3 billion in 2002 sales in Asia, mostly in brake-fluid delivery systems.
Like other auto suppliers, TI Automotive has been squeezed by price cuts demanded by automakers and by rising health care costs. Laule says the reorganization should improve internal cost controls while the Asian push may add revenue.
Terry Kosdrosky is a staff reporter for Crain's Detroit Business, a sister publication of Automotive News.