FRANKFURT – Plastic Omnium, the global leader for large plastic car parts, presents an idea to expand its module business to the floorpan of cars.

One of several innovations the French supplier proposes to the auto industry is a new way of thinking about the body-in-white and the role of the floor.

The idea is to have a platform with a common steel front structure running to the back of the front seats, followed by a plastic floor that would vary with the different models using that front end.

The concept is five-10 years from production because it requires an auto maker to rethink its industrial processes, says Sebastien Guyon, marketing manager for Plastic Omnium’s research and development team based near Lyon, France.

For the Renault Megane, which has seven body styles, Plastic Omnium’s Group Inoplast partner makes seven different floors for the luggage compartment, while the rest of the body-in-white is unchanged.

Plastic Omnium would take over most of the rest of the undercarriage, molding features like fuel tanks, spare-wheel holders, hybrid batteries and urea tanks into the pieces.

The floor would be a sandwich between a reinforced thermoset plastic bottom layer made by Inoplast and a thermoplastic top layer from Plastic Omnium. A two-material strategy also is the basis of a proposal to make liftgates for minivans and hatchbacks.

Using a thermoset sheet molding compound for the inside and a thermoplastic polypropylene for the outside, liftgates would be 20%-30% lighter than a steel counterpart, and elements, such as a spoiler, could be molded into the thermoplastic.

In addition, investment for tooling is three times less, says Marc Szulewicz, president-Plastic Omnium Exteriors.

Inoplast, which is 34%t owned by Plastic Omnium, already makes

all-thermoset liftgates for General Motors Corp., Renault SA, Volvo Cars and other auto makers, but using polypropylene for the outside panel allows more design freedom and is far easier to paint.

The process has not been used before in the auto industry, Guyon says, because it is difficult to glue the two plastics together solidly enough for good performance, yet allow easy disassembly when the car reaches the recycling stage, necessary to meet Europe Union regulations.

Plastic Omnium has patented a new joining technique that uses both a unique glue and a way to apply it that creates a particular profile.

A front hood idea would also involve multi-materials. To help auto makers meet Europe’s pedestrian protection rules for small cars, Plastic Omnium proposes a hood that only would be operable by a service department, saving the weight and metal of latches and springs.

The underside would be thermoset plastic, which absorbs shocks well, and the upper would be in polypropylene. Windshield washer reservoirs and wiper motors could be built in.

A fourth innovation Plastic Omnium presents here is the Chrysalis bumper module, in which headlamps would be attached to the bumper module, which then would be attached to the car. Headlights generally are attached to the chassis, and then the fascia is attached.

The process results in variable gaps around the headlamps, which require time to adjust, or acceptance of a large gap. Using the Chrysalis idea, the gaps with the lamp are fixed, and the bumper unit flexes up to 0.11 in. (0.3 cm) to accommodate variations in the body-in-white.

The HBPO Gmbh joint venture – between Plastic Omnium, lighting-expert Hella KG Hueck & Co. of Germany, and German cooling expert Behr GmbH & Co. KG – presented an idea for a fully integrated module that would cut costs, weight and space at the front of vehicles. Integration is the key, Guyon says.

A polypropylene armature used for pedestrian protection, similar to that in the Citroen C4, would also add air ducts to cool brakes and engines. The front fascia of the car would have "zero-gap" around the headlights.

A clear sheet of polycarbonate plastic would form the outside of the fascia. A small groove would be molded into the plastic around the area where the light would shine through, and the rest would be painted.

The HBPO front-end module business is booming this year, with revenues expected to reach €450 million ($554 million), 50% more than in 2004, says Laurent Burelle, chairman and CEO of Plastic Omnium. By 2010, it should reach €1 billion (1.2 billion) annually.

Plastic Omnium revenues are about €2 billion ($2.5 billion) annually, 82% coming from the automotive industry through its exterior business and Inergy Automotive Systems, a 50/50 joint venture with Solvay Plastics in Belgium. The €250 million ($308 million) in Inoplast sales of rear-end modules are not consolidated.

Some 64% of Plastic Omnium’s revenues come from Renault, GM and PSA Peugeot Citroen. The supplier’s 110 plants are spread around the world, although concentrated in Europe.

In addition to a wide range of customers, Burelle says the company’s industrial base is "well balanced between the old and new Europe."

Plastic Omnium and its affiliates have three plants under construction:

in Mexico for the GMT900 truck next year; in South Carolina for a new BMW AG model next year; and in France for a new Renault car due in 18 months.