The Society of Plastics Engineers’ annual Automotive Innovation Awards is the oldest and largest competition of its kind in the world.

SPE recently announced the winners of its 41st-annual competition, where dozens of engineering teams from auto makers, suppliers and polymer producers competed to claim their application as the year’s most innovative.

This year’s list of winners shows that even after more than 40 years, there is no lack of new ideas for solving problems, cutting costs and reducing weight with polymers.

Grand Award: Ford MuCell instrument panel. Both the category winner for Process/Assembly/Enabling Technologies and the Grand Award winner, the IP on the ’12 Ford Escape and Kuga cross/utility vehicles is the largest automotive part molded using the patented MuCell injection-molding process and the first IP formed with the process.

Creating the part in microcellular foam rather than in solid plastic reduced weight by more than 1 lb. (0.45 kg). Mechanical properties also were improved while molding cycle time was reduced 15% and clamp tonnage was cut 45%, saving an estimated $3 per vehicle compared with conventional materials and processes. Faurecia supplies the part using Stamax long-glass, 30% talc-filled polypropylene supplied by SABIC Innovative Plastics & Flint Hills Resources/Lamko.

Body Exterior: Ram pickup storage box. Chrysler worked with suppliers to develop a new design for a storage box on the ’12 Ram fullsize pickup that eliminated the need to upgrade to heavier and more costly material, avoiding a 9% weight increase and 20% cost premium.

Twin-sheet thermoforming replaces blow molding to create the structure and ribbing of the storage box and lid. The result is a more uniform and dimensionally accurate part whose length was increased, requiring a stronger design and construction.

Suppliers include Penda (lid), Evco Plastics (bin) and River Bend Industries (end caps); Asahi Kasei Plastics North America (material); Cavalier Tool & Mfg. (injection-molded bin); and Tooling Technology (thermoformed lid).

Body Interior: Ford overmold-cushion suspension. Used in the ’12 Ford Escape and Kuga CUVs seats, the single-piece design provides wire harness routing and retention, seat-cushion and back-trim retention and climate-control system retention functions that previously required six parts.

Now there are five fewer parts to install and fewer opportunities for problems. In addition to chopping part count, the cost per seat is reduced $0.56 and tooling costs were reduced $288,000.

The assembly also is 4.3 lbs. (1.93 kg) lighter. Suppliers include Flex-O-Lators Div. of Leggett & Platt, Washington Penn and Advanced Mold Engineering.

Chassis/Hardware: Ford power-window motor output gear and shaft. This power-window motor changed from a steel output pinion to a new injection-molded polyester plastic version for a quieter/lighter motor to meet customer targets while still complying with required window velocities. It is the industry’s first use of a plastic output pinion.

The design allows for window regulator plug-and-play capability into the power drum for better motion control. The new design saves $450,000 directly and another $250,000 indirectly.

The system is used on all Ford Focus cars manufactured globally beginning with the ’11 model year. Suppliers include Brose Fahrzeugteile, Mitsuba, DuPont Automotive and Camoplast.

Environmental: Fiat biodiesel fuel lines. Used on various Fiat diesel engines beginning in the ’11 model year, this is the first automotive use of polyamide (PA) 10/10 plastic and the first bio-based PA 10/10 application. It is used in a diesel fuel line replacing PA 12.

The bio-based resin provides superior temperature and chemical resistance, as well as heat-aging performance in biodiesel fuel blends vs. PA 12. This specific composition also contains a minimum of 60% bio content by weight. Suppliers include Hutchinson and DuPont Automotive.

Materials: Hyundai-Kia volcanic-filler pillar trim. Lightweight, injection-molded polypropylene (PP) pillar trim provides the texture and appearance of more costly fabric-wrapped trim through use of a unique filler combination consisting of volcanic rock, fiber pile, and glass spheres replacing talc-filled polypropylene and fabric-wrapped PP.

No special tooling is required, but process control is important so as not to crush the glass spheres and to distribute the fiber pile evenly during compounding and molding. A 10% weight reduction and 50% direct cost savings was achieved. The material is used on the Kia Optima and Hyundai Elantra sedans. Suppliers include Plakor and Hyundai EP.

Powertrain: Chevy Volt battery pack. Thermoplastic battery frames are a key part of electric-vehicle thermal management, channeling coolant to and from the cells.

The use of injection-molded hydrolysis-resistant PA 6/6 for thermal-cycling management is a lightweight-enabling material for this design, which requires exacting manufacturing consistency and high levels of repeatability and reproducibility. Suppliers include Mann+Hummel, BASF and Omega.

Safety: Ford RALF system. Reinforced Airbag Lid in Foam (RALF) technology is an optimized IP and passenger airbag door system that uses a reinforced structural 3D-skeleton of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) mesh textile and a polyurethane foam lid.

In the Ford Focus, RALF replaces the traditional metal or plastic airbag lid door and offers much improved airbag lid positioning with less risk of windshield breakage. It offers significant weight savings over traditional foam-in-place airbag construction and is cost-neutral. Suppliers include Faurecia Interior Systems.

Hall of Fame: SuperPlug door module. To be considered for a Hall of Fame award, an automotive-plastic component must have been in continuous service in some form for at least 15 years and preferably been widely adopted throughout the industry.

The SuperPlug integrated composite door-hardware module debuted on six ’97 General Motors vehicles.

It was the first all-plastic integrated door-hardware module, and it reduced components and fasteners up to 75% by molding features into a single gas-assist injection-molded composite frame that plugs into the inner door on the vehicle-assembly line, improving ergonomics and quality, saving labor time and cost and reducing warranty claims.

Since then, more than 250 million of the modules have been produced for more than 60 million vehicles worldwide.

The module was jointly developed during a 5-year program that started in 1990 by a division of GM that later became Delphi Interior & Lighting Systems. Those operations and patents since have become part of Inteva Products. Also participating in the program was GE Plastics, which now is SABIC’s Innovative Plastics business unit.

The collaboration on the program fostered between the suppliers eventually would become a model of close business and technical alliances between members of the automotive supply chain, SPE officials say.

So significant was the technology that nine key patents were issued between October 1993 and June 1998.

dwinter@wardsauto.com