DETROIT - Lear Corp. plans to use a plastic-injection press designed to mold soft-drink bottles to produce automotive parts.
Lear Corp. purchased the 3,500-ton press from Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, to mold instrument panels with two layers: a hard plastic skeleton known as a substrate that can be covered with a softer plastic to give the instrument panel a soft touch.
Other potential automotive applications include door panels, sun visors, consoles and inner fender walls.
Lear and Husky executives displayed the technology last month at Husky's technical center in Novi, Mich.
The two plastic injection units were set up in a straight line, each aimed toward the mold area. One injection unit molds the instrument panel's substrate. Then the machine flips another mold over to the second, opposing plastic injection unit, where the soft plastic skin gets injected.
Lear purchased one of the machines, and executives said it will go into full production this summer on a door for a North American car. That machine has both injection units on the same side of the press.
From 10 to 1
So-called multimaterial molding can, in a single step, replace the seven to 10 manufacturing steps it takes to make instrument panels the traditional way.
That efficiency prompted Kenneth Shaner of Lear, a veteran of car interiors, to call Husky's system a type of "new-horizon technology."
"I'm awestruck when I see this machine," said Shaner, vice president of instrument panel cockpits and door systems at Lear's Interior Systems Division in Dearborn, Mich. "It is, to me, that much of a game-changing product that's going to come out of this machine and that type of process."
Right now, two-shot molding is a hot area for large auto parts. The technology has a bright future, Shaner said.
"Ten years from now you'll probably see a lot different (applications) than what you're seeing today," he said.
Multimaterial molding is an important part of what Shaner called Lear's one-step manufacturing process. The idea is to cut costs by reducing assembly outside the press and delivering higher-quality parts.
Mum's the word
Lear has won three contracts so far.
Lear executives declined to say which of their company's plants will house the machine.
Bob Adams, Lear's director of advanced engineering for instrument panel and cockpit integration, and Shaner said two-shot molding gives Lear the ability to fine-tune the skin material to create interiors with a specific tactile feel. For example, one supplier helped Lear solve a customer's problem with an armrest that was too "sticky." That helped Lear move ahead with even bigger parts from the material.
Because the part is one piece, it removes the noise caused by two plastic parts rubbing together.
"It's flush, no gaps," Shaner said. "That's a key driver in the automotive interior area."
Shaner expects the real growth for two-shot molding to come in midlevel cars and trucks. Luxury vehicles likely will stick with the multisystem panels of foam and a urethane skin. Low-end cars will continue to have less-expensive hard-plastic interiors, he said.
Mike Diletti, Husky's vice president of sales and marketing, said making large automotive parts by the multishot process will continue to grow.
"I think that the conversion is in its infancy," Diletti said.
Economic forces are pushing auto molders to invest in new technology, but it has to be flexible, he said.
"You can do so many things with this machine that five years from now it will not be obsolete," Diletti predicted.
Husky is beefing up the 6-year-old, 110,000-square-foot technical center in Novi to work more closely with auto applications. Rich Sieradzki, the center's general manager, said Husky finished an 11,000-square-foot expansion this spring to add a training center with a classroom and machine area.