I hear Ford won big" someone muttered as we walked into the Society of Plastics Engineers annual automotive awards dinner. That was news to me, even though I was one of nine judges of the annual competition for most innovative use of plastics. I also was surprised attendees were so knowledgeable about the winners - because judging is supposed to be secret. But that's another story.

For about 13 years I've spent the better part of a day in late October listening to dozens of presentations on plastic automotive parts. In the early days, judges endured stereotypical engineers with plastic pocket protectors drone on about elongation rates and molecular chains. Now we see smartly dressed men and women giving tightly scripted briefings.

Throughout these years the choices always have been tough, but I've never paid much attention to who molded the part or made the plastic. "Politics" plays some role in every awards competition, whether it's the Oscars, plastics or the Pulitzer prize in journalism, but please leave me out of any conspiracy theories if you're trying to figure out why your part didn't win.

I mention this only because I overheard the word "politics" frequently during the awards dinner, and it wasn't in reference to current events in Washington.

The fact that there is grumbling underscores how big a deal this event has become. With 1,000 industry executives attending the dinner and hundreds of other engineers donating countless hours throughout the year, it is the largest - and most lavish - engineering recognition event of its kind.

Plastics' biggest problem is that it can't be recycled as easily as steel or aluminum. So it should come as no surprise that this year's most important innovation - earning the SPE's Grand Award - came from the environmental category. Ford Motor Co. and DuPont Co. won for a program that recycles old carpeting into nylon air cleaners (with 25% post-consumer content) used on 3 million vehicles annually.

Visteon Automotive Systems, formerly Ford Automotive Parts Operations, qualifies the recycle content material and manufactures the air cleaners. DuPont reclaims the nylon from millions of square feet of used carpeting that otherwise would be thrown into landfills.

The other winners are:

Exterior: Profiled last July in Ward's Auto World (p.81), the new generation fascia of the '98 Ford Windstar is substantially thinner than its predecessor, yet just as strong, flexible and durable. Made from a new blend of olefinic polymers developed specifically for the Windstar application by Montell North America's Automotive Business Group, the fascia improves part manufacturing productivity by more than 30%, reduces weight by 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) and saves up to $16 per vehicle.

Interior: With plastic taking over so many areas of the automobile, it's tough to find totally new applications, but the air bag housing on General Motors Corp.'s Opel Vectra clearly broke new ground as the first all-plastic design (see WAW - March '97, p.122). The part is made of BASF AG's Ultramid glass-filled nylon 6, and molded by Lemforder Metalwarren, Elastmetall.

Chassis: The electric battery tray enclosure for GM's electric version of its S10 pickup not only eliminates 50 separately assembled parts and incorporates the wiring harness, it has complex molding features that optimize cooling and heating for the batteries, which improves battery performance and life. It's molded by Structural Foam Plastics Inc. Material is Comalloy International's Hiloy glass and mineral-filled nylon 6 resin.

Materials: Painting plastic exterior parts has never been easy, and thermoplastic olefins (TPOs) are especially difficult. That's why Ford's patented invention of a low-cost electrically conductive TPO resin for electrostatically painted parts impressed judges. Visteon is using the material for the '98 Mercury Sable fascia. The material is Dexflex TPO supplied by Solvay Engineered Polymers.

Powertrain: The air filter housing for Mercedes-Benz's heavy duty trucks is the first flat housing for heavy trucks, uses gas-assist molding technology and is one of the largest components in the world made from glass-reinforced nylon 66. It's manufactured by Filterwerk Mann and Hummel in Germany from DuPont Zytel.

Come to think of it, Ford did do pretty well.