This year's blockbuster DaimlerChrysler merger has suppliers on both sides of the Atlantic worrying. In Europe, traditional-Benz suppliers fear they'll be asked for drastic price cuts when Daimler's purchasing department finds out what is paying for various parts. Chrysler's vendors are leery of Mercedes' hands-on approach to supplier relations.
But the marriage bodes well for at least one group of suppliers: plastics makers. For them, it looks like a match made in heaven because Mercedes andboth are strong plastics proponents, says Jim Best, president of Market Search Inc., an automotive plastics consulting company based in Toledo, OH.
Chrysler has a proven track record, with composite body panels on such niche vehicles as the Plymouth Prowler and Dodge Viper - not to mention the extraordinary development work it's doing with plastic-bodied concept vehicles (see related story, p.00). Mercedes has used plastic for fenders on some specialty models such as its now discontinued E500 sports sedan, and now uses plastic for the fenders and liftgate on the new A-Class subcompact sold in Europe.
The biggest splash this model year, though, is the much-anticipated Smart car, developed by a joint venture between Mercedes and Switzerland's SMH watches group. Due in European dealerships in October, its launch was delayed because it rolled over during the same lane-changing "Moose test" that nearly sank Mercedes' A-Class car.
The tiny Smart micro car boasts a variety of innovative features, including thermoplastic body panels. The panels are made of GE Plastics' Xenoy PC/PBT (polycarbonate/polybutylene terephthalate) resin.
In terms of sourcing, the Smart car is a departure for Mercedes - which owns 81% of Micro Compact Car, the venture that builds Smart. Mr. Best says Mercedes usually prefers to use in-house molding capabilities. Chrysler, on the other hand, regularly uses outside custom molding companies.
Overall, according to Market Search, plastics will grow to 299 lbs. (104 kg) per vehicle in North America by 2008, compared with 253 lbs. (114 kg) per vehicle in 1998. One of the biggest winners in exterior components will be polypropylene bumper covers, which are forecasted to increase by more than 50 million lbs. (23 million kg) per year over the next decade.
Also look for blow-molding processing to become more widespread in bumper applications as automakers try to leverage existing equipment. The same equipment used for blow molding plastic gas tanks can be used for bumpers, Mr. Best says, adding that, in particular, has excess capacity in this area.
In other news, Dow Automotive's Spectrim BP 80 polyurea composite polymer displaced sheet molding composite (SMC) on theF-350 dual rear-wheel truck fender flares last year and is expected to be used in tailgate applications in the future. Dow says the new fenders, co-developed with Decoma International Inc., are 30% lighter than SMC fenders on the previous "Dually" model, and offer improved impact resistance and increased durability.
But don't count out SMC. The Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA) (formerly the SMC Automotive Alliance) is projecting a 30%increase in SMC use over the next five years. The bulk of the gains will come from new formulations such as Lite SMC, which is 15% lighter than conventional SMC and 35% lighter than steel.
Currently, SMC Lite, supplied by Cambridge Industries Inc., is used on the hood of the Dodge Viper and will be used on outer panels for at least one other domestic OEM for a mid-1999 introduction. SMC also is being used on both the hood and rear deck on the '99 Mustang.
SMC producers also hope to win pickup box and skid plate applications through the development of high-strength, vinyl ester-based composites. These materials, which contain a high percentage of fiberglass reinforcement and a lower filler level than conventional SMC, are expected to appear in production vehicles by 2003.
Other trends include an industry-wide move to reduce painting costs, which are estimated at more than $8 billion worldwide.
Hoechst Corp.'s Ticona unit has big plans for molded-in color, of course. It's developing 70-lb. (32-kg) body panels - the largest components ever formed with molded-in color - for Chrysler's experimental plastic-bodied concept cars.
Another new development is an electrostatic process developed by Hyperion Catalysis International. In the past, plastic parts had to be coated with a conductive primer before they could be painted.
The new process eliminates the need for a primer by adding a small amount of conductive carbon "fibrils" to the base resin. Using GE Plastics' Noryl resin, the process debuted on the side mirror housings of the 1998 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, yielding a 24% improvement in paint transfer efficiency and a 35% reduction in volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
The goal, however, is to eliminate the paint process altogether.
Conductive fibrils is an interim step, explains Venkatakrisnan Umamahes-waran, GE's market development manager for exteriors. "Ultimately what we're shooting for is molded-in color."