AUTO MAKERS SAY THEY ARE PUTTING A greater emphasis on eco-friendly materials for interiors of their cars and trucks and call on suppliers to put their best pitch forward.

“Keep consensus-building with the OEMs and bridge that gap between the OEM and the Tier 1,” says Mark Bacchus, group manager-Organic Materials at Toyota's technical center in Ann Arbor.

“We rely a lot on the Tier 1 to do the legwork on proving the concept and partnering with the raw-material suppliers,” he says during a panel on the latest eco-friendly interior technologies.

Bacchus warns suppliers to “do your homework” before knocking on doors. “Get your benchmarking done, get your testing done and prove the point.”

Angela Harris, research engineer-Plastics Research at Ford, advises suppliers not to choose a single path. Auto makers are looking for all-new bio-based materials, as well as new bio-based fillers for existing polymers.

“I don't think it has to be either/or,” she says. “We use so many different materials and polymers. We have to look at all of them.”

However, which materials OEMs might consider will vary by region. In the U.S., for example, Ford relies heavily on indigenous wheat straw as an alternative plastic filler. Toyota likes kanaf and jute in North America and hemp in Europe.

“Kanaf seems to be the technology we've been choosing,” says Bacchus, who estimates touchable surfaces in the average U.S. product from Toyota contain 60%-80%, or 12-13 lbs. (5.5-6.0 kg), of eco-friendly plastic.

But the auto maker has encountered fogging and odor issues with bio-based materials. “We're always looking to prove out that those kinds of issues are not going to be a problem,” he says.

The filler also will vary depending on the application, Harris adds. Whether it is hemp or wheat straw or flax, “we're looking at all those different types.”

Eagle Ottawa shows its new Natalle leather composite, a bio-based material from the leather-making giant. Nathan Mullinix, vice president-research and development, says Natalle contains 60% bio-based and renewable materials.

About 70% is leftover trimmings from the company's leather shops, and it comes on top of the fact that leather itself is a by-product of the meat industry. “And leather is 100% renewable,” he says.

Natalle is a recycled material as close to leather as the industry will find. “It is soft, supple and strong,” Mullinix says. “It is the next best thing to leather.”

The material has been proven for all wrapping demands, he adds, and has the potential to shave 2-3 lbs. (0.9-1.3 kg) from the average vehicle in today's fuel-economy driven market.

Asked if combing the earth for eco-friendly materials is worth the investment as auto maker's try to wring every penny out of product development, the panelists offer a unanimous “yes.”

“We're doing it because it is the right thing to do” Ford's Harris says.

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