TOYOHASHI, Japan -- Time was, any vehicle worth its mettle was a lumbering construct of solid steel welded together by fiery robots. But increasingly, today's cars are being held together in ways other than hot-fused metal.
Tape -- yes, the time-honored tool of grade school art projects -- is the new go-to bonding agent in an age in which cost cutting, speed and weight reduction are top priorities.
Nitto Denko Corp., a Japanese chemical company that is one of the world's biggest suppliers of automotive tape, sees a big future for the sticky film. It is among several suppliers rushing to develop new tape products that can help streamline production and boost mileage.
Automotive tapes tackle a number of tasks, from holding on nameplates and reinforcing sheet metal to protecting wire harnesses and absorbing noise and vibration.
But don't confuse these tapes with the Scotch tape in the desk drawer.
Hyperjoint, for example, is Nitto's strongest tape. Used to bond hood emblems to the outside of the car, a Hyperjoint patch of 20 square centimeters (3.1 square inches) can hold 1.2 tons, making it more than 100 times stronger than household cellophane tape.
Global automotive tape sales are expected to grow at a faster pace than overall industry volume for the foreseeable future.
Nitto, headquartered in Osaka, forecasts its automotive tape revenue to soar 39 percent to ¥140 billion, or $1.36 billion, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, from 101.2 billion yen, or $984.4 million, in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014.
Automotive products, the bulk of which is tape, account for only 14 percent of Nitto's total sales of $7.29 billion in the fiscal year ended in March But the company has market shares exceeding 30 percent in many of its different tape products.
Nitto's top competitors in auto tape include 3M of the United States, Tesa SE and Henkel AG & Co. of Germany and Sika AG of Switzerland, as well as other companies. Yet few cover the gamut of tapes offered by Nitto, which churns out dozens of varieties.
"We don't want to only increase our market share, we also need to find new markets," said Tetsuya Ishikawa, senior general manager in charge of Nitto's automotive unit. "For a long time, we were focusing mainly on Japanese automakers. But if we keep that mind-set, maybe we can't survive into the future."
Tape plays a key role in reducing the weight of cars to give fuel economy a boost. The trick: slapping a piece of stiffening tape on the back of sheet metal in doors and other panels. That lets carmakers use thinner, lighter steel while achieving the same rigidity. Nitto is among those selling this type of tape.
Its product, Nitohard, enables automakers to swap 0.9-millimeter-gauge steel for 0.7-millimeter steel, shedding up to 20 percent of the panel's weight, Nitto says.
The flexible tape is applied like a Band-Aid, but it hardens to a rigid shell after heat is applied.
Because more body parts are being made of aluminum, Nitto has developed reinforcement tapes that enable the already lightweight material to be made even lighter.
The proliferation of onboard electronics, running everything from power windows and heated seat cushions to safety systems, means today's cars are crammed with up to 875 yards of wire harnesses that require bundling and insulation in flexible tape made from polyvinyl chloride or PVC.
Before, the weight of that tape was an afterthought. But today, when every ounce counts, tape companies are racing to develop ever-thinner tape to offset its expanded use.
Nitto slimmed its latest tape to a razor-thin 0.07 millimeters thick, from 0.1 millimeters before, helping shed about 1 pound per car in wire-harness tape alone.
The company is now working on a 0.06-millimeter-thin tape. That could allow for additional weight savings of up to 7 ounces per vehicle, Nitto says.
While rivals in China can undercut on the cost of commodity PVC tape, they lack the processes to manufacture a smooth surface on such a thin film because it wrinkles so easily, Ishikawa says. Wrinkling can impact the quality of the product and make it harder to manufacture. Applying adhesive is tricky for the same reason.
Another tape application: filling in gaps around the car to seal out noise, vibration, dust and water. Nitto's thickest tape is a 44-millimeter, or 2-inch, thick, spongelike strip that is wedged between the instrument panel and the front window.
It's a quick, cheap way to imbue economical cars with premium ambience.
"It makes a Toyota Corolla sound like a Mercedes-Benz," Takeshi Yamanaka, general manager of Nitto's Automotive Technical Center, said of the satisfying muffled thud its Legetolex damping tape lends to a closing door.
Tape has practical advantages in manufacturing as well.
Using tape to affix emblems or side trim doesn't require clipping the parts through holes punched through the steel. This is less costly and quicker. It also allows for greater design flexibility and reduces the risk of rust and corrosion.
And tape is better than glue, Ishikawa says, for two reasons.
Tape remains strong and flexible over time, while glue becomes hard and brittle, making it less strong on impact. Glue also often requires longer curing time. Tape adheres immediately, making it easier and faster for workers to use.
Nitto is so bullish on auto tape, it has just opened an expanded Automotive Technical Center in Toyohashi, outside Nagoya, to develop and test its next-generation products.
Nitto also has smaller tech centers in suburban Detroit and in China, Thailand and Belgium.
Like many Japanese suppliers, Nitto aims to expand sales beyond the stable of Japanese carmakers it has traditionally relied on.
Japanese brands account for about 60 percent of Nitto's global automotive sales. And while executives declined to identify customers by name, they said Nitto's tapes are used by the world's top five auto manufacturers.
Looking ahead, Nitto also wants to use its nonautomotive products in the automotive field. Those include optical films for liquid crystal displays and flexible printed circuits. The proliferation of electrified drivetrains, and their reliance on electric motors and inverters, will also spur demand for insulation paper and varnish, Nitto says.
"Nitto Denko has many products, so now we are thinking about new cross-function products with other teams," said Hideo Iwashita, leader of Nitto's Nissan Motor Corp. team. "Nitto Denko doesn't have much business with American or European manufacturers yet. So this still has potential for expanding our business."