Fantastic Plastic Creativity produces some landmark innovations When I tell people I am going to spend a day judging the Society of Plastic Engineers awards, it's usually followed by a sigh of empathy. Admittedly, it didn't sound very exciting to me either, before I attended for the first time last year.

But I quickly learned SPE provides journalists and other industry movers and shakers with a rare opportunity to mingle with some of the automakers' most creative minds as well as receive presentations on sometimes obscure components or processes. OK, so I would rather spend the day fishing or at a college football game, but it has turned out to be one of the most productive eight hours of the year. And the 2000 awards are no different.

In fact, this year's edition features a landmark innovation. The composite pickup box on the Ford Explorer Sport Trac won the Body Exterior category in a landslide. The application is hardly a breaking story; it has been under development since the mid-1980s. But finally making it into production made it a cinch. The vinyl-ester SMC cargo box supplied by the Budd Co. is corrosion- and dent-resistant and provides a 20% to 30% mass savings that yields a 7% increase in fuel economy.

Budd also claims a reduction in tooling investment and says larger cargo boxes and more high volume programs are on the way. "There are programs that have been committed with 6.5 ft. (2m) length basically in volumes of a couple hundred thousand a year. We do not expect this to be a one-time thing," says Budd's Ken Rusch.

Of particular note, while the Ford/Budd cargo box won easily, it probably would have finished second to the full-size composite pickup box by General Motors Corp. and Dow Automotive, which was excluded from this year's awards because it wasn't available to customers during the '00 model year.

In the Body Interior division, DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s PT Cruiser's blow-molded shelf panel also won easily despite another strong nominee from DCC, an articulating cupholder on the folding and removable seats for the automaker's minivans. While the shelf panel is very versatile, its processes made the difference. There are no screws, snaps or latches, and supplier Lear Corp. used special manufacturing technologies, including an industry-first application of heat transfer label and patent-pending structural blades that help provide an impressive 250 lbs. (113 kg) load capacity.

The first commercial use of injection- molded repolymerized Nylon 6 grabbed the Environmental award. Ford teamed up with Visteon Corp. and Honeywell to make the 5.4L throttle body adapter from Nylon 6 waste carpet and other nylon waste articles and automotive parts. "The carpet we're standing on today could be put in the feed stream for components tomorrow," says a Visteon representative.

The world's first large-scale nylon depolymerization facility, located in Augusta, GA, recycles 200 million lbs. (91,000 t) of the material annually and reduces greenhouse gas emissions vs. virgin production by 67%, the companies say. In addition to the environmental benefits, the part is 20% cheaper to make and 51.5% lighter than the sand-cast machined aluminum component it replaces.

Another industry first took the Materials category award. Dow Automotive was issued a stunning 163 U.S. patents associated with the creation of Questra glass-filled syndiotactic polystyrene. The new polymer is used on the Nissan Xterra, Frontier and Altima injection-molded mirror brackets. The components are 20% lighter than their glass-filled nylon predecessors and provide top-notch vibration resistance and excellent mirror stability, Dow says.

Textron Automotive Co.'s IntelliMold closed-loop injection molding process got the most votes in the Process/Enabling Technologies category. IntelliMold is the first injection-molding technology that measures and controls pressure and temperature inside the mold cavity, which helps reduce scrap, warping and cycle times while improving mechanical strength and surface quality.

Chassis/Hardware/Powertrain category honors were taken home by Ford, LDM Technologies and ExxonMobil Chemical for the companies' controlled energy management bumper isolator on the Windstar minivan. In the same amount of package space as EPP foam, the injection-molded ultra-thin walled HDPE bumper isolator absorbs 15% more energy and simultaneously matches U.S. and European pedestrian and high-speed impact requirements. It also provides weight savings of 2 to 6 lbs. (0.9 to 2.7 kg) and cuts annual manufacturing costs by $40 million.