In the past, composite molders did two things - shoot and ship - they had little input in design. Today some are working directly with the automakers in strategic partnerships. Materials technology supplier BASF and molder Freudenberg-NOK teamed up with GM Powertrain to create an air-intake manifold for the '95 Cadillac Northstar engine. It's the first of one made in North America using the meld-core injection-molding technique.

BASF and Freudenberg created a virtual enterprise in 1990. Freudenberg contributed its engineering and lost-core molding expertise BASF chipped in its design capabilities in areas such as straining gauge, laser holographic modal and acoustical analysis, EGR testing and flange-area optimization.

Compared to its predecessor, the new manifold is 50% lighter, provides 5 more horsepower, uses 70% fewer parts and reduces engine noise, plus it was developed in 3 1/2 years - about half the time it used to take.

Suppliers also are creating long-term relationships such as Plymouth, MI-based Auttocom LLC, a joint venture between Freudenberg and European molder Mecaplast. The new company makes composite powertrain components, and is working with automakers to develop plastic air/ fuel management systems that will appear in six North American vehicles by 2000.

Lyle J. Otremba, Auttocom vice president, says the next generation of manifold systems will integrate fuel-system components such as fuel rails, injectors and throttle bodies, and other components such as the air cleaner, ducts, resonators and engine covers into a single, fully assembled and tested module that can be bolted to the engine.