For plastics suppliers, 2002 could be viewed as a year of opportunity for a material that perhaps is growing slower than anticipated.

“Are we satisfied with our growth? No,” says Mike Dorney, chairman of the Automotive Composites Alliance, a plastics industry trade group, and a vice president of sales and marketing at The Budd Co. “Would we like to see more sales and revenue? Yes.”

The way next year is shaping up, it might do a better job of appeasing Mr. Dorney.

There are several key products hitting the market, and the possibility remains that government-mandated fuel economy standards will eventually force automakers to use more alternative materials. “We're projecting '02 will be coming in at 370 million lbs. (167 million kg) of composites, which is an early estimate. That's a 9% hike on a per pound basis,” Mr. Dorney tells WAW.

The American Plastics Council (APC), meanwhile, foresees a 4% to 6% annual growth rate in automotive applications for the entire plastics industry over the next several years, with exterior body and chassis “the two frontiers left,” says Bruce T. Cundiff, APC's automotive director. Regarding long-term growth, expect North American automotive plastics use to rise from 4.19 billion lbs. (1.9 billion kg) in 2001 to 5.63 billion lbs. (2.55 billion kg) in 2011, says a recent study by plastics analyst Jim Best of Toledo, OH-based Market Search Inc. Body applications is the area that will see the most growth, Mr. Best projects, with usage rising from 1.2 billion lbs. (544.56 million kg) in 2001 to 1.6 billion lbs. (726.1 million kg) in 2011.

The all-new Ford Thunderbird reflects Mr. Best's forecast. Thermoset composites make up 60% of the retro coupe's exterior body panels. Thunderbird's roof features the first production use of sheet molding composite (SMC) for a full roof module. It is one of the most thermoset composite-intensive vehicles since the Corvette. (Cynics might also recall several other composite-intensive vehicles that did not last: the Pontiac Fiero and General Motors Corp.'s first-generation front-drive minivans.)

And there's more.

The composite pickup box option finally is available on GM's Silverado. And three vehicles creating a considerable amount of buzz in the auto industry are rife with composites. The Hummer H2's hood and front fender are SMC parts molded by Meridian Automotive, which also supplied the tailgate and midgate for the Chevy Avalanche. Ford turned to Meridian as well as Budd and Venture Industries to mold several SMC parts for another sport/utility pickup, the Lincoln Blackwood, including rear dutch doors and hood.

But while the plastics industry is identifying new growth areas, other materials are nibbling at vehicle market share. Some insist a trend is under way to convert gas tanks back to steel (see steel story, p.48). Mr. Cundiff disagrees. He notes that currently more than 70% of fuel tanks are plastic compared to about 25% five years ago.

“I think there will be places that steel gets one or two wins. But I think in general, plastics has solutions to those challenges,” says Don Little, chair of the APC's Automotive Group and director of quality and management systems for Dow Automotive.