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What's down the road for captive automotive molders.

What's Down the Road For Captive Automotive Molders

Conservative buying plans that address well-defined, short-term manufacturing goals best describe the philosophy steering captive automotive plastic processing operations as they tool up for business in the 1990s.

Capital investment and expansion for all major domestic auto builders interviewed by PLASTICS TECHNOLOGY are proceeding in cautious, deliberate, incremental steps; funds are being appropriated only to justify specifically targeted manufacturing goals. Few auto builders appear to be looking beyond the first half of the decade in terms of actual shop-floor investment for plastics processing equipment. Most seem satisfied to work within their existing capacity, in apparent confidence that current equipment will sustain their in-house plastics manufacturing needs at least through the first half of the decade.

Captive processors say they will continue to be the primary source of large parts (apart from SMC) for their automotive parent companies, who choose to maintain tight control over cost and quality of those parts, leaving mostly smaller components and subassemblies to custom molders.

Recent predictions by resin suppliers and industry analysts that the processability, surface quality, and recycling advantages of thermoplastic injection would make thermoset systems obsolete for body panels will not come true in this decade, say most automotive engineers. Thermoset systems such as RIM and SMC will maintain their leading roles as materials of choice for body panels, fascia and large exterior trim parts, despite further expected inroads from thermoplastic injection molding, say auto makers. While fewer technological advances can be expected in the more mature processes of RIM and SMC, injection molding of TP body panels is expected to benefit from innovations in various new lower-pressure processing technologies.

Two high-growth areas of automotive plastics processing in the 1990s are expected to be blow molding and structural composites. Auto executives say these two fields will take off after 1995. Bumpers, instrument panels, and gas tanks are key application targets for blow molding, while liquid composite molding (RTM and SRIM) to produce an integrated front-end chassis structure is a goal for composites.

Flexibility will be the key to any new equipment purchased, as captive molders move away from high-volume batch processing to shorter-run Just-in-Time (JIT) production to respond more quickly to market demands and better monitor and isolate quality problems.

Auto makers interviewed agreed that in the 1990s emphasis on traditional advantages of plastic for automotive applications - lower weight, corrosion resistance, design flexibility and selectively lower tooling costs - will be supplanted by a more urgent focus on quality (i.e., consistency as well as performance), driven by consumer demand and global competition. The changing times mean captive processors will be rethinking their criteria for choosing materials and implementing manufacturing technologies during the next 10 years in order to maximize quality.

"In the past, the auto industry has committed to some unproven manufacturing technologies and has gotten burned for it," says Richard J. Larkin, manager of manufacturing engineering for the Syracuse, N.Y., facility of the Inland Fisher Guide Div. of General Motors Corp. "For the 1990s we've become more cautious. We get involved early in the planning and development program for new manufacturing processes. We must validate the product and the process, and it must meet our quality expectations. Today the emphasis is on quality."


Much of the growth in captive automotive plastic processing in the 1990s rests with thermoplastic injection molding and the trends that will shape its development and application. While bumper fascias, interior parts, and some fender panels represent established applications, many questions still remain concerning the commercialization timetable for other kinds of exterior body panels. Automotive manufacturers remain skeptical about injection molded horizontal body panels, as they were when questioned last year on the slow pace of progress in overcoming nagging technical and quality questions, both from a material and process technology standpoint.

The consensus among captive molders is TP injection will succeed in this decade as a process strictly for the fabrication of interior components and vertical body panels, with no viable technology in sight to attain the required stiffness, structural integrity or surface quality for horizontal body panels.

The current view of most automotive engineers is that the optimum size for injection molding machines in the 1990s is a clamp tonnage in the range of 2000 to 3300 tons. This contradicts some recent industry predictions that even larger injection molding machines, with clamp tonnages in the range of 5000 tons and above, would dominate the decade ahead.

The 3000-ton size range is suitable for fabricating components such as bumper fascias, while offering the flexibility to process smaller interior parts as well. Reduced cost, extended tool and mold life, and less attrition of reinforcement fibers also are cited as points favoring more moderate-size machines.

Lowering injection pressures while increasing part quality is a goal of several manufacturers interviewed, including Ford Motor Co., Detroit. "The idea is to reduce residual stresses and part distortions," according to Allan D. Murray, manager of exterior systems R&D for Ford's Plastics and Trim Products Div. "In order to have parts that `fit to gauge' and retain dimensional stability, we will need lower stresses and injection pressures," he says.

Gas-injection molding is on the agenda for Inland Fisher Guide as a means to produce interior, exterior, and door system parts with lower-tonnage machines, according to Suresh Shah, advanced manufacturing engineer. He notes that U.S. patent disputes have been an obstacle in implementing the technology until recently. But now that the patent disputes are resolved, the way is clear for greater utilization of this low-pressure molding technology.

Inland Fisher Guide already is planning to invest in developing this process, which is expected to become "a major advantage" for that GM division, Shah says. Existing molding machines can be retrofitted for gas injection for about $50,000, he says, providing a cost-effective way to upgrade existing capacity. Injection-compression molding is another method being explored by Inland Fisher Guide to reduce clamp tonnages and pressures for injection molding.

Larkin at Inland Fisher Guide's Syracuse facility expresses similar interest in the gas-injection method, adding that his facility is planning to embark on a small developmental program for processing exterior body parts utilizing the technology.



Most new injection machine purchases will be for standalone presses with closed-loop computer controls. There was little interest in planning elaborate networks of automated systems, an approach that coincides with overall trends for injection molding technology in the 1990s.

Saturn Corp., the new secrecy-enshrouded GM subsidiary based in Spring Hill, Tenn., has 34 injection machines installed, with two more on order, according to several industry sources. Among the 34 presses now in production, there are 12 5000-tonners, 16 3150-tonners, and six 2000-tonners. Two additional 3150-ton units will be installed by year's end.

Sources say all the injection machines at Saturn are being supplied by Ube Industries America Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich. Saturn officials declined interviews and would not provide information on their plastics processing operations. It's believed many of the larger machines are integrated with gantry-style robotic parts-handling systems. The Spring Hill site has separate facilities for processing interior and exterior components.

Saturn had scheduled a tour of its facilities and manufacturing systems on Aug. 27, but information from that visit could not be included in this story due to publishing deadlines.

According to recent reports, the door panels, fenders, and quarter panels for the two Saturn models (a four-door sedan and a two-door sports coupe) will be injection molded of an ABS/polycarbonate alloy. Though the actual thermoplastic being used for Saturn's vertical panels remains undisclosed, one possibility is Pulse B250 from Dow Chemical Co., an ABS/PC with a proprietary mineral filler system.

Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp., Smyrna, Tenn., last quarter began production of injection molded TPO front and rear bumper fascias for its 1991 Sentra model, using two new 2800-ton Ube machines. A Nissan spokeswoman says the system includes gantry robots that deliver molded fascias to a conveyor, where they're inspected and manually loaded onto painting racks. The fascias then are delivered to an automated painting cell, which includes four robots.

It's anticipated Nissan may purchase as many as four new injection machines, in the same tonnage range as its current presses, within the next 18 months. The additional machines will be needed to process fascias for a new four-door model slated to roll out in 1992.

The fascia processing system is expected to ramp up to full production by next month, molding 739 fascias per day. The new 45,000-sq-ft fascia facility, representing an investment of about $20 million, employs 44 on two production shifts.

This system represents the first injection molding to be done at Smyrna. Prior to establishing this captive molding operation, Sentra bumper fascias were produced by Polyrim Manufacturing Ltd., Concord, Ontario, div. of Decoma Plastics, a Magna International Co.

Acustar Inc., a Chrysler Corp. subsidiary in Troy, Mich., plans to order four new injection molding machines, ranging from 2500 to 3000 tons, which would be the largest units in its stable of plastic processing equipment. Acustar currently has 132 injection machines, ranging up to 1500 tons, at four locations: Evart Products Co., Evart, Mich.; MacDonald Products Co., New Baltimore, Mich.; Rantoul Products Inc., Rantoul, Ill.; and Guelph Products, Guelph, Ontario.

While Acustar executives declined to provide details on the four new machines, they did say the units would be used to produce large interior components. Injection molding of bumpers, using a process that combines a TPO with GE Plastics' Xenoy PC/polyester alloy, is an ongoing development program for Acustar, which it expects to ramp up to full production by 1995.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing U.S.A., Inc., Georgetown, Ky., will install three new Cincinnati Milacron Vista injection molding machines by year end, according to Thomas Gann, assistant general manager of stamping, body welding, and plastics. The order consists of one 2200-ton unit, and two 3000-ton units. These machines will join four 850-ton and three 1600-ton Toshiba machines already in place. The new Vista units will produce interior side panels in the wagon tail for the 1992 Camry wagon.

The 10 injection presses will operate as standalone, computer-controlled stations, with integrated robotics. The machines will not be networked into an overall, automated flexible system, though some of them will be paired up around quick-mold-changing tables. Gann didn't rule out the possibility of additional injection machine purchases during the next five years, but says the plant "will not be adding anything major in the near future." He says that while the new machines would be large enough to accommodate exterior body panels, Toyota is not considering that application at present.

Mazda Motor Manufacturing (USA) Corp. in Flat Rock, Mich., is molding bumper fascias on six Ube presses - two 26000-ton, two 2200-ton, and two 1000-ton. These six will satisfy Mazda's production needs through 1995, with the equipment running at full capacity, technicians say. Mazda will mold six different bumper fascias (four front, two rear) at Flat Rock through 1992: front and rear bumper fascias for its MX6 and 626 models, as well as front fascias for the Ford Probe LX and GT models. Mazda decided to outsource the molding of the rear Probe fascias, rather than add capacity.

Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., Marysville, Ohio, currently operates 11 computer-controlled HPM injection machines: eight 3000-ton units and on 2200-tonner, as well as two 1500-ton Farrel presses. David Thomas, manager of Honda's plastics department, says these machines will meet the facility's demands for the next three years, with no additional investments planned.

Thomas says the average daily production of the machines is 5100 bumper fascias, on cycle times of about 80 sec. Honda's daily production rate for Civic instrument panels is 900 units. Honda also processes 1400 Accord instrument panels each day, utilizing its one-piece urethane molding technology.

The majority of the machines employ Barber-Colman MACO 8000 controllers, operating as standalone units. Tooling and molds for the 11 units were designed and built by the Honda Engineering Div. in Marysville.

The Syracuse facility of Inland Fisher Guide will install an 1850-ton model of the innovative Tandem machine from Husky Injection Molding Systems by the first quarter of next year. The machine will be equipped with a Siemens control, two molds and a floating platen, and an integrated Husky robot for parts removal, according to Larkin.

Last year the Syracuse plant undertook a major capital investment program, installing 18 Husky and Battenfeld injection machines, all in the 1250- to 3300-ton range. The facility has a total of 134 injection presses, which annually process about 80 million lb of plastic. Syracuse is GM's largest captive molding facility.

Ford operates about 245 injection machines at its Saline and Milan, Mich. and Sandusky, Ohio, plants. Saline is the largest molding facility, with 140 machines, 16 of which are in the range of 2000 tons and above. Milan has 58 machines, with 21 units exceeding 2000 tons and 25 units in the 1200- to 2000-ton range.

It was learned through industry sources that Ford recently ordered five more Ube machines in the 2000- to 3000-ton range to be installed at Milan and Saline this year.

Murray says the majority of Ford's injection molded bumpers utilize Xenoy, which is expected to continue at least through 1995.

Industry sources say Factory Eight of the Flint Automotive Div. of Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac in Flint, Mich., where GM does much of the molding of its thermoplastic fenders, has a total of 18 injection units: four in the 2500- to 3000-ton range; 12 in the 1500- to 2000-ton range; one 1000-ton machine and one 850-ton machine. GM officials decline to comment on future investment or expansion plans at Factory Eight.


For RIM, the key development in the near term will be a move to polyurea-based resin systems, seen as an improvement over current polyurethane technology. Richard K. Jones, engineering group manager of front-end components for the Flint Automotive Div. of GM's B-O-C Group, says polyurea RIM offers several advantages, including less heat sag, lower scrap rates, higher productivity levels, lower cycle times (mainly due to reduced demolding time), and better surface quality in finished parts. The last is partly because polyurea allows using unfilled grades or reduced levels of glass and mineral reinforcements, according to Jones.

RIM is a cornerstone method for processing front and rear bumpers for Toyota Camry models produced in Georgetown, Ky. Toyota is installing a new 125-ton RIM unit, with one more on order. The two new RIM machines have been purchased from Dow's Admiral Equipment Co. subsidiary.

The new RIM units will complement four existing 125-ton RIM units, also from Admiral, which currently produce bumper fascias. The RIM operation at Toyota also includes six postcure ovens.

Toyota plans to switch to glass-reinforced urethane RIM bumper fascias in the 1992 model year, upgrading from the current unreinforced versions, according to Thomas O. Zawacki, assistant general manager of purchasing. "Our bumper design will be changing. We want increased heat sag and mechanical strength and less size distortion. That's why we're going with glass fibers," he says.

Mark G. Habermehl, assistant manager of plastics molding at Toyota, indicated that the RIM operations at Georgetown will be upgraded next year through the acquisition of an Mobay/Henneke automated blending system, which will meter and mix glass filler with resin.

While many vendors have touted the benefits of new polyurea RIM systems for fascias, Zawacki indicates that Toyota remains satisfied with its existing Mobay urethane technology. "We haven't tested polyurea much," he points out. "Toyota is known for being very conservative about new technologies. The company tends to wait for trends to fully develop and quality to improve before they adopt them."

Development work in structural RIM (SRIM) composites is being investigated at the Anderson, Ind., facility of Inland Fisher Guide. James N. Ellis, director of technology development for the division, says pilot projects at Anderson include automated preforming of glass-fiber reinforcement, as well as examining new types of mineral filler reinforcements.

Ellis considers automated glass preforming to be an important trend for boosting RIM productivity and quality this decade. Ellis adds that plans also are under way at Inland Fisher to convert the current RIM urethane material technology over to polyurea within the next five years.

Mazda in Flat Rock will be phasing out reinforced RIM for the front bumper fascia of the Probe LX and GT models (which Mazda produces in a joint development effort with Ford), in favor of injection molded TPO, according to Jeffrey E. Totten and Kenichiro Yoshioka, production engineering and operation planning specialists at Mazda. They cite quality and cost as the two critical factors in the decision to move away from RIM.

Mazda currently outsources production of the RIM front bumper fascia of the Probe, while injection molding the rear fascia in-house. Once the RIM system is phased out for the front fascias, Mazda will reverse the setup, processing the front fascia in-house and contracting production of the rear fascia with an outside molder.


As a mature technology for automotive plastics processing, the key trends for upgrading sheet molding compound in the 1990s will involve automating the mixing and molding processes to reduce cycle times, and solutions for reduction and reuse of scrap.

As reported earlier this year, polyesters and vinyl esters are expected to remain the resin systems of choice for SMC body panels during the next 10 years, while epoxies and phenolics may grow in acceptance for under-hood applications.

Automotive applications for SMC are "now on the downside of the learning curve," according to Irvin E. Poston, manager of composites for the Advanced Engineering Staff of GM's Technical Center in Warren, Mich. "SMC is further along in terms of development than most plastic processes for structural body panels," he says. However, despite its maturity, SMC remains the lone plastic process with the mechanical properties suitable for horizontal exterior body panels. "Stamped thermoplastic sheet or injection molded panels still don't have the stiffness or surface quality required for horizontal panels," he points out.

Success in automating will be a trend in determining SMC's continued viability in the 1990s, according to Richard Jones of GM's Flint Automotive Div. Such automation would allow auto makers to take greater advantage of SMC's inherently lower tooling costs compared with steel, he says. Among the leading development efforts for automating the SMC process is the ongoing program at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s composites technical center in Jackson, Ohio.

Besides the Lumina APV van and Corvette, a novel SMC application at GM is the Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24 hood, which provides a distinctive look as well as functional design, serving as an air-intake channel, Poston says.

Ford, which no longer has SMC processing in-house, will introduce an SMC hood for its 1991 Taurus SHO model this fall, according to Murray. He says the application meets Ford's requirements for surface quality. SMC also is the material of choice for the Ford Aerostar hood and lift gate.

Some car builders, like Toyota, choose not to incorporate SMC into their material plans, citing surface-quality drawbacks as their chief concern. "For us, the surface quality of SMC remains a concern, and that's why you don't see it at Toyota," Habermehl says.


Automotive executives identify blow molding as a key growth area for plastics processing, with significant developments expected in the second half of the decade. However, at present, there is relatively little captive automotive blow molding capacity in this country. The exception is Ford's Milan plant, which operates 14 blow molding units, processing various parts in the 11-25 lb range.

Inland Fisher Guide is experimenting with blow molded instrument panels, bumpers, and exterior claddings, though these are custom molded on unusual horizontal-mold machines at MES Corp., Troy, Mich., a new U.S. subsidiary of Excel Corp. of Japan. Shah of Inland Fisher Guide says development work is at a very early stage, but there are plans to deploy the technology by 1995. The developmental instrument panel is currently being tested with ABS and a filled PP material. MES also plans to custom mold a combination PP/TPO air-cleaning duct for Subaru in Lafayette, Ind., this year.

Technicians at Mazda say work is under way in Japan to develop blow molded gas tanks with a laminate coating. Current trials are examining both polyethylene and nylon as materials for the tank, with a commercial application possible by 1992.

In Japan, Toyota also has considered developing a blow molded gas tank, but a decision recently was made to postpone further trials, according to Gann. He says that even if a decision is made to go with blow molded gas tanks in the near future, it's likely that the Georgetown facility would source them from an outside vendor.



Structural composites is another area targeted for major development. Robert Thurber, composite programs executive for Acustar and Poston of GM say innovations in structural composites processing may make it the most significant area of growth for automotive plastics. However, commercial application breakthroughs are unlikely at least until the year 2000, they say.

"We don't know how to design or manufacture structural composite parts for automotive," Thurber admits. "Structural composites hold the key to the all-plastic vehicle. With viable structural composites, we could design entire assembly plants to accommodate plastic."

Thurber says the major payoff for such a future plant would be the elimination of painting and E-coat equipment needed for metal parts (assuming plastic components would take advantage of inmold coating or molded-in color). He estimates that such paint and primer equipment represents about 40% of the total cost for a new vehicle assembly facility.

Advances in structural RIM, automated prepreg tape-laying machines and pultrusion systems all may be possible avenues to achieve necessary advances in structural composites, but Thurber feels it will take an entirely new processing system, or perhaps a method that combines several existing techniques, to propel this technology out of the lab and into the market.


Mazda plans to add a second thermoformer and trimmer for production of vinyl dashboard skins by early 1992. In addition, Mazda will establish a new trial development area for the foam processing of dashboards.

Toyota will be upgrading its four powder slush molders for its 1992 model year. The units, which mold precolored, powdered PVC into instrument-panel skins, employ an automatic mold-changing system. Each unit holds three molds. Work already has begun on retrofitting the equipment with new molds and controls. The four slush moldes are integrated with four urethane-foaming turntables for instrument-panel production.

Toyota also will install a third new thermoforming machine for 1992 to increase its output of PVC skins for instrument panels.

Further capital investments at Nissan to upgrade the Smyrna fascia facility may include more robotics and automated material-handling devices for stacking and delivery of molded parts to the painting cell, as well as additional painting robots.

In addition to improving its process equipment for instrument panels, Toyota will install a new automated top-coat painting cell for bumper fascias. The cell, expected to be on line early next year, will use three robotic painters, as well as three overhead-reciprocator painting stations. Toyota executives decline to identify the vendor or system integrator of the new painting cell.

The Syracuse plant of Inland Fisher Guide is injection molding precolored TPO bumper fascias, a procedure that is expected to become a growing trend to reduce painting operations for captive processors in the 1990s. Larkin says the facility recently initiated production of precolored TPO bumper fascias for the 1991 Cavalier J-car, which will account for about 5 million lb of material this year. He points out that the precolored fascias are designed to complement, not match, the car's body color.

These precolored bumpers are being processed at Syracuse on four 2700-ton Natco injection machines integrated with gantry robotic arms that remove parts from the mold and drop them on inclined conveyor belts, where they are delivered for hand-trimming and stacking by plant workers. The 8-lb fascias are molded from Himont's HiFax TPO ETA-3095, with color concentrates (black, white, gray and silver) from PMS Consolidated, Somerset, N.J., and Uniform Color Co., Holland, Mich.

The Syracuse plant also has ordered a three-axis, gantry-type, computer-controlled coordinate measuring machine from DEA Inc., Livonia, Mich. The unit, which will be installed by the first quarter of next year, will be used to check the dimensional accuracy of plastic parts as well as the 450 active steel molds used by the facility.

PHOTO : Bumper fascias and instrument panels are processed at Honda of America's Marysville, Ohio, facility. The plant has 11 injection presses, which will satisfy the facility's production needs for the next three years.

PHOTO : Nissan Motor is injection molding TPO bumper fascias on two 2800-ton machines at Smyrna, Tenn. Injection machines in the 3000-ton range will be the most popular new purchase for most captive plants in the 1990s.

PHOTO : The Syracuse, N.Y., plant of GM's Inland Fisher Guide Div. is processing integrally colored bumper fascias for the 1991 Cavalier, utilizing four 2700-ton Natco molders.

PHOTO : The emphasis for captive injection operations in the 1990s will be standalone, closed-loop machines with better trained technicians. There is no interest in complex automation networks.

PHOTO : Auto executives identify blow molding as a key growth area for plastic processing, with major advances expected during the second half of the decade. Currently there is little captive blow molding capacity.

PHOTO : Technology advances for captive plants in the 1990s will include the evolution of JIT methods, faster mold changing capabilities, and more flexible, shorter-run production cycles.

PHOTO : RIM will maintain its position as a vital process technology for captive automotive facilities in the 1990s, with developments in polyurea-based resin systems seen as a major trend.
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Author:Gabriele, Michael C.
Publication:Plastics Technology
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:Melt thermal conductivity data become more readily available.
Next Article:Automotive custom molders tool up for the '90s.

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