While teams of advanced engineers around the globe search for tomorrow's alternatives to the internal combustion engine, automakers and suppliers are refining current powerplant designs to meet the demands of today's consumers obsessed with longer vehicle life and less engine noise.

Ford Motor Co. and AE Goetze North America -- part of the British T&N plc's Piston Products Group -- worked together to develop a skirt-coated piston that makes the automaker's V-6 and V-8 engines last longer and run more smoothly and quietly.

AE Goetze's South Bend, IN, plant manufactures the pistons and applies Ford's proprietary recipe of molybdenum disulfide, graphite and other friction-reducing ingredients. In April the company produced its millionth skirt-coated piston for Ford.

While supplier officials wouldn't specify which models its skirt-coated pistons go on, good bets (due to the company's production estimates) include Ford's two most recent introductions -- Contour/Mystique and Taurus/Sable. AE Goetze expects the 2 millionth unit will emerge in November. The 5 millionth is expected in the third quarter of next year. By that time, the company expects the plant to be making 3 million skirt-coated pistons a year.

In 1994 the South Bend plant began operating a skirt-coating annex, where pistons are prepared and the actual film transfer takes place, in addition to its normal piston manufacturing operation. Jeremy Holt, vice president of product engineering and marketing for AE Goetze North America, says the plant now has 12 million total piston capacity per year. He says in the last six months three piston machining lines were added, bringing the total to seven modules. The plant has been running at capacity since the second quarter.

The skirt-coating portion of the South Bend plant is a cornerstone of AE Goetze's 1994-'95 company-wide $53 million capital investment plan. A multi-million-dollar new equipment investment in LaGrange, GA, gives the company the capability to produce its first complete system. The plant manufactures 3 million pistons a year, assembles and packages them with piston rings, pins, circlips and connecting rods.

In Lake City, MN, AE Goetze doubles its iron foundry capacity, increases the liner-hardening capacity and adds piston and liner machining capacity and equipment.

The company adds keystone-ring manufacturing capacity and a 10,000-sq.-ft. (930-sq.-m) addition to its third building and a new robotic plasma spraying system in Manitowoc, WI.

In Sparta, MI, the company adds 5,000 sq. ft. (465 sq. m) and has fully automated its five-line piston ring foundry. AE Goetze also puts up a 45,000-sq.-ft. (4,180-sq.-m) structure to consolidate and streamline its machining, warehousing, maintenance and support service operations there. It also adds new ring manufacturing equipment in Wausau, WI.

AE Goetze's rings and pistons can be found on powerplants such as Ford's 2.3L 14 OHC and 2.5 Modular Duratec; GM's Series II V-6, Northstar and Aurora V-8; and many others.

While Ford itself came up with the skirt-coating formula applied at South Bend, AE Goetze also has its share of innovations, many of which emerge from its Muskegon, MI tech center. Other advancements are imported from various centers around the world.

One development is the CKS-36 coating for use with gasoline and diesel engine piston rings. CKS-36 consists of several layers of hard chromium, each containing a network of micro-cracks filled with ceramic particles. These particles are embedded throughout the randomly generated microcrack network, which allows the chromium matrix to be continuously exposed to new particles during normal wear. Extensive testing has shown CKS-36 rings to have less than 50% of the wear of hard chromium coatings, with only marginally increased cylinder wear.