It doesn't look like much. Just two big pieces of sheet molding composite (SMC) bolted together; but many experts believe it's the most significant piece of plastic or composite material on the '96 models.

People closely involved with it, such as Ken Rusch at The Budd Co. and Bill Mellian a Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., talk about it like proud parents.

They should be proud. Developing a big composite structural part that's as multi-functional a this is quite an accomplishment.

"It combines the functions of the radiator support, headlight assembly, grille opening reinforcement panel, hood latch mounting and hood bumper support, while controlling the fit and coordination of the fascia, hood, fenders and lamps," says Mr. Rusch, advanced projects manager at Budd.

This component goes far beyond the cost and weight savings and design benefits you'd expect to get from switching from steel to plastic.

Called simply the "radiator support" on the '96 Taurus/Sable, it allows Ford Motor Co. to modularize a significant portion of the engine compartment. That's a huge accomplishment, which is why we're talking about it in our manufacturing column instead of our materials column.

Mr. Rusch explains how it works:

During vehicle assembly, the upper radiator support is pinned and bolted to the front fenders and front body structure in the assembly plant. It then goes through the E-coat, body prime and top-coat paint systems, along with the sheet metal body-in-white.

During final assembly, the upper radiator support positions the lamps, hood latch, hood bumpers, fenders and bumper fascia to provide front-end fit/finish specifications.

Meanwhile, the SMC lower radiator support is molded and shipped to Ford Climate Control Div. where it's built into a front-end cooling modular assembly that includes the radiator, transmission fluid cooler, oil cooler, air conditioner condenser, cooling fans and housings, and other hardware. Then it's shipped to Taurus/Sable assembly plants in Atlanta or Chicago.

Once there, the upper and lower radiator supports are bolted to each other and incorporate the structure for the hood latch, while contributing to the structural requirements and overall stiffness of the vehicle front end.

"The front-end structure must withstand a number of specific load conditions, including hood slams, hood fly-up loads, torsional and lateral dynamic loads, static load/stiffness specifications and 5-mph (8-km/h) bumper-impact requirements," says Mr. Rusch.

Nobody's talking yet about exactly how much more efficient it is to have the assembly work done off-site, but most everyone agrees the savings are substantial.

Jim Best, president of Market Search Inc., a research company specializing in automotive plastics, remembers a supplier showing a similar plastic radiator support/cooling module in the early '70s. He says it made sense then but that the technology and the will apparently weren't yet there.

"It sounds very unglamorous, but this part makes it practical to assemble a variety of under-hood components to the radiator support off-line.

"That's the key. It's what I would judge to be the most important thing coming down the pike," says Mr. Best.

One reason it's so significant, he says, is that this type of component makes manufacturing sense in both high and low volumes, and is easily adaptable to most vehicle platforms.

"This part is a natural evolution of front-end systems. For years, composite grille opening panels have been used for a variety of car lines. We're just taking the concept one step further by including the module that incorporates a number of subassemblies," says Mr. Mellian, transportation market specialist at Owens-Corning.

"What makes this application so exciting is that it's taking advantage of what a composite can really do well, such as parts consolidation and design flexibility," Mr. Mellian says.

"If Detroit looks at total costs, including piece cost, tooling costs, warranty costs, assembly costs, that's where you can really take advantage of composites, especially if you factor in their light weight, corrosion resistance and dimensional stability. We're really excited about this application."

Gee, Bill, we could hardly tell.