There's a new spin on the industry's hot design term "thinking outside the box."

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. last month officially outlined plans to offer composite boxes on vehicles in 2000, touching off a round of competition over a component that has been untouched by innovation - save some outboard plastic fenders and bed liners. "A pickup box has been a pickup box for 50 years," says Raymond J. Chess, GM assistant vehicle line manager, full-size trucks.

Not anymore. The disclosure also is a major development in the supplier sub-strata scuffle between plastics and steel producers, and should set in motion a serious effort to recycle composites. "I think it is terrific news for the entire plastic industry. We really see this as a tremendous area of growth," says John Zessin, North American commercial director for Dow Automotive, one of the primary suppliers for the GM project. The other GM suppliers are Cambridge Industries Inc., Owens Corning, Bayer Corp. and The Budd Co.

Ford Motor Co. Vice President of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Shamel T. Rushwin threw down the gauntlet last month at the University of Michigan Management Briefing seminars. He told a small group of reporters that he expected to see automakers battling over pickup box design and technology like they are over who has the most doors.

He's not kidding. GM and Ford already are sniping at each other over whose technology is first and best.

Ford officially will be the first to debut a composite box when its Explorer Sport Trac, a sport/utility and pickup crossover with a 4-ft. (1.2-m) bed, hits the street during the first quarter of 2000. But next fall, GM will make a 6-ft. (1.8-m) composite box an option with its fleet-side, full-size Silverado pickup, a much higher volume vehicle than the Sport Trac's niche audience.

DaimlerChrysler Corp. has no immediate plans to introduce a composite pickup box, but a spokesman says DC is doing serious development work in the area of composite vehicle bodies and already has shown off numerous concepts to the public.

Ford, GM and DC have been researching composite boxes since the 1980s, most recently under the cooperative umbrella of the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) in an effort to reduce weight and improve gas mileage of light trucks as well as provide design, performance and repair advantages. Composites are claimed to be more durable and quicker to fix than steel. It can take four days to refurbish a heavily used steel bed compared with one day for its composite counterpart, plastic proponents say.

However, Ford and GM have chosen different composite technology and processing techniques for their boxes. GM is using urethane-based reinforced reaction injection molded (RRIM) and structural reaction injection molding (SRIM) materials for its box. Ford is using tough vinyl ester sheet molding composite (SMC), a material GM says is not as strong, is prone to surface pops and chips and degrades much faster. "We're looking for flexible toughness. (SRIM and RRIM) are so much tougher, it's unbelievable," says Tom Jensen, engineering general manager, GM Truck Group.

Nevertheless, composite industry insiders warn that Ford's efforts should not be discounted: It has more experience and success working with SMC than any other automaker.

GM field-tested its boxes for two years and over 1.2 million miles (1.9 million km) in all sorts of environments, including phosphate mines, where steel boxes were often replaced after only six months.

GM insiders say their technology, which chops the weight of the Silverado by 50 lbs. (22 kg), requires a much lower pressure-molding process, enabling them to make bigger boxes with smaller presses. "I don't know of an SMC press big enough in the world to make an 8-ft. (2.4 m) pickup box," says a GM insider.

Labeled Pro-Tec for protection and technology, GM isn't saying what it will charge for the option or the volume it expects. (The penetration rate for GM's $225 bed liner option is about 60%.) While some indications are that GM initially expects 10% of fleet-side Silverado orders to include composite boxes, the automaker says it is considering offering Pro-Tec on other vehicles and expects interest from contractors and consumers. That suggests GM plans to move the technology into high sales volumes.

For now, GM's Ft. Wayne, IN, assembly plant will be the sole source for Pro-Tec. A $64 million, 74,000-sq.-ft. (6,900-sq.-m) expansion currently under way there is readying the facility for the new option. The boxes will be completed off-site and brought to Ft. Wayne and mechanically hung on the pickups after paint.

Eventually the Pro-Tec installation process will be more efficient, but for now GM is avoiding the 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) temperatures in the anti-corrosion dips and paint bake ovens. The automaker also says it is working with Pro-Tec suppliers Cambridge Industries and Budd to have a recycling network in place by next fall. "The technology exists. The problem has been that the infrastructure has not been fully developed," says Doug Denton, project manager for USCAR's composite consortium.