Having a good, competitively priced material with great engineering characteristics simply isn't enough anymore for automotive material suppliers. If you want to increase your OEM business, you've got to offer more: more engineering, more expertise, more "value" than any of your competitors.

Steel suppliers are engineering entire steel bodies-in-white to show that lightweight vehicle bodies can be made from the material. Aluminum producers are developing vehicle bodies to prove out the benefits of their material. And plastic producers are coming up with all manner of new components--from instrument panels to intake manifolds--to push their products.

These aren't just pretty concepts. They can--and do--go into production. I That Ultralight steel auto body design may become part of a production vehicle in the late 1990s. One German car, Audi's A8 luxury sedan, already is using an aluminum space frame built by Alcoa. Several more, developed by Alcoa and Alcan Aluminum Corp., are on the way. Practically every plastic intake manifold extant today was at least co-developed by a major plastic supplier.

The latest addition to this value "add-athon" is testing and computer-simulation procedures. once upon a time, only automakers had the resources and expertise to use heavy-duty supercomputers to simulate and analyze how new designs and materials behave in crashes and other circumstances. Then that work started shifting to big Tier 1 suppliers. Now raw material suppliers are following suit.

It's not news, for instance, that major seat producers such as Johnson Controls Inc. and Lear Corp. do their own crash testing and also now are analyzing aesthetic and consumer acceptance issues such as seat comfort. Major instrument panel producers are involved with similar projects. But now companies that supply the seating foam and instrument panel materials are involved with end-use testing. Take this example:

About 18 months ago, Susan E. Blackson, engineering manager for ARCO Chemical Co., learned her company's material wasn't performing well in a new instrument panel design and was going to be replaced by a higher-priced polycarbonate plastic. Instrument panels represent a huge market for ARCO's Dylark engineering resins, so it was a big concern.

The customer had changed the air bag door design. The new design allowed the whole top of the IP to flip up when the air bag deployed. In early testing, the Dylark parts didn't perform well. Because there was no way to measure and analyze load pressures on the plastic parts during deployment and change the part design accordingly, engineers simply substituted a more expensive competitive material that could pass the test.

But instead of giving up, Ms. Blackson used some contacts in the aerospace industry to help her devise a data-acquisition strategy that greatly enhances the accuracy and detail of computer models of instrument panel designs.

Previously, most crash-test data acquisition of this kind generated only information directly related to air bag deployment and occupant safety issues. ARCO's new system simulates the actual stresses and strains all instrument panel components undergo during a crash.

One of the keys, Ms. Blackson says, was development of miniaturized instrumentation--sensors so small they could provide detailed data without affecting the way the plastic parts reacted to air bag inflation pressures, load transfers through attachments and resulting strains.

The simulation system developed from this data correlates well with real-world results--well enough, in fact, that ARCO used it to tweak the design parameters of the panel part so it could win back the application it lost to the higher-cost material.

Since then, automakers and Tier 1 suppliers have shown keen interest in Ms. Blackson's testing system. The ability to predict how new components will react in a crash can shave months off design cycles and save millions in prototype costs and last-minute engineering changes.

"It can get rid of over-engineering aspects of the design, and help us understand what happens during events," Ms. Blackson says. "The response has been incredible."

Of course, if you want to use the testing system and all of its specialized sensors and software, you've got to be using ARCO plastics in your design. "I'm not dumb," Ms. Blackson says with a laugh.

World's largest headliner

Nearly 11 ft. long and 5 ft. wide (3.4x1.5m), this giant trim piece is made by Findlay Industries for General Motors Corp.'s '96-model extended length full-size vans. The headliner is easy to install, low cost and lightweight, Findlay says. It also features modular construction, incorporating overhead light ports and ventilations ducting --and it snaps into place easily. It's made with Findlay's ProBond molding process, which combines several layers of structural and trim materials bonded together.

Plastic cuts transmission weight, cost

Hoechst Technical Polymers says GM is using its Fortron linear PPS in the first application of a thermoplastic internal load-bearing part for an automotive transmission. The part, an accumulator piston for GM's 4L60E and 4T60E transmissions, is about 30% lighter and costs 10% less compared with aluminum. Linear PPS is a more expensive raw material than aluminum, but use Of the plastic eliminates machining and cleaning Operations necessary with die-cast aluminum parts, Hoechst says.