PITTSBURGH - It's not just consumers who are getting rid of headaches by using Bayer Corp. products.

Bayer, the epitome of a diversified company with business operations ranging from photo film to aspirin to bowling balls, also is offering technologies for vehicles that should help automakers ease their concerns about meeting ever-increasing demands for materials performance.

The German-based company recently opened the doors to its campus here and showed journalists its tremendous research and development capabilities. Organizing the briefing must have been daunting. There were writers on the tour from, among others, the appliance, automotive and plastics industries who needed to be rewarded with newsworthy information for taking two days out of their busy schedules. Mission accomplished. Besides the out-of-the-ordinary opportunity to see a refrigerator being made, as well as learning about a process to recycle into simulated wood the hay-like material used as stuffing in boxes, the trip provided considerable insight into Bayer's automotive efforts.

A highlight was Bayer's plastic/metal hybrid technology. It involves encapsulating super-thin (usually around 0.03 ins. [0.08 cm]) bake-hardened steel in Bayer's plastic Durethan resin to develop a single integrated unit. The result, Bayer claims, is a lighter component that exceeds the performance of a part made from just metal or plastic. "We put plastic where you need plastic and steel where you need steel," explains Engelbert Meurer, manager of Bayer's Innovative Technologies Group.

Within the next two to four years plastic/metal hybrid technology will be wide-spread in vehicle structural components by supplanting conventional all-steel parts, say Bayer executives. "All major OEMs are seriously interested or already have programs with us," Mark W. Witman, director, technology and technical services for Bayer's Plastics Div., tells WAW.

Besides weight savings, the company says parts made from the technology are 100% recyclable. It also improves manufacturing processes.

Bayer began developing plastic/metal hybrid components in the late 1980s, and the technology's first commercial application came a decade later when it was used to make the front end bolster for the Audi A6. Use spread in Europe, and finally hit the U.S. when Ford Motor Co. decided to use plastic/metal parts for the grille opening reinforcement on the automaker's '00 Focus.

The initial Focus grille concept of multiple, welded metal stampings had tolerance issues, and the Bayer technology enabled a dramatic decrease in secondary fit and finish adjustments. There also was a more than 40% reduction in weight vs. the traditional metal design. Cost savings exceeded 30%, and parts numbers were reduced via integration of six grille pieces into two.

Along with its current uses, Bayer sees instrument panel beams, seats and doors as the most likely applications for plastic/metal hybrid technology.

There also was a chance to take a peek at Bayer's structural reaction injection molding (SRIM) capabilities. It is supplying the tailgates for General Motors Corp.'s Pro-Tec composite pickup boxes. The company reveals estimates of about 125,000 units annually when the boxes are offered as an option this fall on '01 models. The tailgate weighs 16 lbs. (7.26kg), or 50% less than a similar steel part.

Reinforced reaction injection molded (RRIM) parts also keep winning applications, Bayer says, such as replacing sheet molded composite (SMC) for fenders on the '02 Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac Evoq.

Another material, Apec - a high-heat polycarbonate - contributed to the improved headlamp and fog lights on the '99 Dodge Ram, which used two dual-filament halogen capsules instead of the traditional two single-filament bulbs.

A new lens material was needed to withstand the higher operating temperatures. Bayer's Apec resin was the answer with its inherent clarity and ability to withstand temperatures of up to 340degreesF (171degreesC), as opposed to 265degreesF (129degreesC) offered by a standard polycarbonate.

"This is the first vehicle in the world to utilize Apec polycarbonate for an outer headlamp lens," says Roy Palasek, market development manager for Bayer's Automotive Plastics Center.

The result: headlamps that boast improved beam performance. Just another headache-reducing idea from Bayer.