LIVONIA, MI – Times may be tough, but it was obvious at the annual Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Innovation Awards banquet Nov. 20 that there still is no shortage of innovation in the auto industry.

Organizers say this year saw one of the most competitive fields of parts nominations in the nearly four decades of the program’s history.

The Grand Award, the SPE’s highest honor, went to a twin-sheet blow-molded fuel system for BMW AG’s new 7-Series sedan. Although plastic fuel tanks offer many advantages, they struggle to compete with steel tanks because they sometimes can emit tiny amounts of fuel vapor that hurt emissions ratings.

However, fuel tanks formed via this process meet the strictest PZEV requirements, while also providing higher tank capacity, lower weight and cost reductions.

During the process, two sheets of high-density polyethylene are inserted into a mold, and in between the two sheets is a rack with components (pump, low-fuel reservoir and sensor) to be placed inside the tank.

With the mold remaining partially open, the two sheets are blown against each half of the mold, and the components are attached to the inside of one of the plastic sheets.

With the components in place, the rack is removed, the mold is closed, the two halves of the tank are sealed together and the final blow molding commences. The process results in substantially fewer piercings in the tank, which significantly reduces evaporative emissions, without adding much cost.

Inergy Automotive Systems makes the tanks, and LyondellBasell Industries, Kurrary, Mitsui Chemicals and Ticona supplies the high-density polyethylene.

Also at Thursday’s banquet, SPE honors Ford Motor Co. with the Vehicle Engineering Team Award for innovative plastics applications on the new Flex cross/utility vehicle.

Noteworthy features on the Flex include the capless refueling system; satin-chrome decklid applique; injection-molded crushable armrest; integrated refrigerator in the rear console; integrated floor shifter in the front console; integrated roof shade; rear-footwell ambient lighting; long-glass polypropylene overhead console, expanded-polypropylene head-restraint core; and acrylic appliques with SecureCode invisible keypad on the B-pillar.

The winners in the other categories are:

Body Exterior – The blow-molded running board system on the Ford Escape cross/utility vehicle. Produced by ABC Group Inc. from 30% glass-reinforced polypropylene supplied by Salflex Polymers Ltd., the rocker moldings, end features and running board and step area are for the first time combined in a single blow-molded piece that is foam-sealed to the body side for improved craftsmanship. The component also chops weight 8.6 lbs. (3.9 kg) and reduces cost and assembly time to the tune of $5 per vehicle and provides improved stone-chip resistance.

Body Interior – Ford Flex CUV’s modular floor console and shifter assembly. It uses an all-plastic structure made from recycled styrene maleic anhydride (SMA) and long-glass polypropylene to support a floor-based shifter and eliminate metal brackets used previously to secure the shifter to the floor pan. The integrated system simplifies online assembly and improves package space. It also reduces cost $7 and weight by 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) compared with previous designs. Automotive Component Holdings LLC produces the part from recycled SMA from Nova Chemical.

Chassis/Hardware/Powertrain – The first modular plastic oil pan module adopted for a passenger car. Designed for the Mercedes C-Class, the part integrates an upper shell of diecast aluminum and a multifunctional lower shell injection molded from glass-reinforced nylon 6/6 supplied by DuPont Automotive. Produced by G. Bruss GmbH, the design reduces oil vapor around the crankshaft; improves horsepower 5%; and lowers air entrapment in the oil, which decreases friction for longer bearing life. The component also is 2.4 lbs. (1.1 kg) lighter and 20%-25% less costly than an all-aluminum design.

Environmental – The first flexible polyurethane seat foam created from soy polyol for commercial automotive seat backs and cushions. Used on the Ford Mustang, it replaces up to 25% of the petroleum-derived polyol in typical urethane foam. Produced by Lear Corp. from Lear-developed materials, the material substitution reduces carbon-dioxide emissions, does not require tooling changes and is cost neutral.

MaterialsGeneral Motors Corp.’s Saab 9-7X SUV instrument panel is the first thermoplastic olefin/thermoplastic elastomer slush-molded instrument panel manufactured in North America. The low-cost polyolefin-blend material for thin skins is produced on the same equipment as the vinyl and urethane it replaces, while providing equivalent or better performance at 20% lower weight and without volatile organic compound emissions or fogging. A special additive imparts high powder-packing density and superior powder flow during the molding process. Inteva Products LLC is the part producer and material supplier.

Performance and Customization – The carbon-fiber hood assembly for GM’s ZR1 Corvette. The unique signature hood for the ZR1 is designed for high visual impact by combining the auto industry’s first see-through, bonded polycarbonate plastic window in a hood with specially stabilized, fully exposed visible carbon-fiber weave on the underside of the hood. The assembly also provides significant mass reduction compared with sheet molding composite or metal. Plasan Carbon Composites makes the assembly, which weighs a mere 10 lbs. (4.5 kg).

Safety – Polystyrene foam for head-impact protection in the Ford Focus. Judges rated this application the best-in-class, low-cost energy-absorption countermeasure. Foamed styrene is extruded into blocks and then wire is cut into complex shapes. The process reduces weight 25% and delivers cost and timing benefits, compared with competitive products. Grupo Antolin North America supplies the parts, with material produced by Dow Automotive.

Ward’s Automotive Group is a media sponsor of the SPE Innovation Awards, and Executive Editor Tom Murphy was a member of this year’s Blue Ribbon judging panel that picked the winners.