In 1989 Fred Keller went to the massive international plastics exposition in Dusseldorf, K'89. He didn't go as an interested visitor, although that is how he would ordinarily attend such events. Keller is chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, Inc. (Grand Rapids, MI), and director of its Center for Innovation. Cascade produces plastic products for automotive, furniture and other industries. Keller was in Dusseldorf to make an announcement to the press. Cascade had ordered from Battenfeld, a company that produces plastics processing machinery, an injection molding machine. This is not just any run-of-the-mill machine. Far from it. It is a 9,000-ton clamp pressure behemoth. It was, at the time of the announcement, and is, in 1997, said to be the largest injection molding machine in North America. The second-biggest: 7,000 tons.
Keller, who, surprisingly enough, has a degree in metallurgy, not polymer chemistry, admits that he's drawn to things that push the envelope of common practices. Thus, the 9,000-ton machine.
Today that machine (along with four smaller injection molding units [three 3-ton machines and one 1-ton] built by various other companies) is in production at Cascade, pumping out parts.
Ordinarily, the machine is being used to produce two-cubic meter containers for Waste Management Corp.—those big rectangular dumpsters that are often seen in the parking lots of restaurants and other small businesses. Typically, these containers are metal fabrications. But Cascade, uniquely, has the ability to produce durable containers with plastic.
Essentially, cars, too, are metal fabrications. Chrysler Corp. engineers set about to find the means by which they could change this paradigm. Not for the sake of just changing the paradigm, mind you. This is a company that is oriented toward doing things if and only if there is some apparent applicability or associated learning. Otherwise, it's a no-go. "We must identify what it is that's important to the customer," stresses Bernard Robertson, vice president-Engineering Technologies and general manager-Jeep/Truck Operations.
They wanted to learn more about building cars with plastic. "Before now, you could have a lightweight car made of expensive, exotic materials or you could have an affordable car, but you could not have both," Robertson observes. What if they could build a car that's made of the same materials used for, say...soda pop bottles...?
Now, it wasn't just a matter of applying plastics to automotive architecture. Chrysler, like all automakers, uses plastics for a variety of applications, such as fascias on the exterior and all manner of surfaces and components on the interior. And there are vehicles on the road, such as the Saturn and the Corvette, which have plastic body panels covering metal frames. What's more, there's the Viper, which is providing Chrysler with experience with thermoset plastics.
That isn't what Chrysler was thinking about.
"The conventional wisdom previously was that you couldn't achieve lightweight, affordable, low-cycle time structural composite vehicles," Robertson says. But, working with a group of suppliers—equipment, materials, tooling, processing, molding pros—Robertson indicates, "We've made a lot of progress. We're not saying that it's done. We're not saying that it's ready to go into production, but we do feel sufficiently encouraged by everything we've learned and the prospects."
He adds, "If it works, then it could revolutionize the way we make cars and trucks in the future, and that's why we are so excited about it."
"Let's try to do a vehicle with half the variable cost of a typical subcompact, like a Neon. Let's target a hypothetical emerging market which doesn't necessarily need all the bells and whistles the U.S. market requires, a market where they are typically walking or riding bicycles or maybe driving motor scooters. Let's try to do something between a motorcycle and a real car." That, says Robertson, is where they began. The idea was to create a stretch objective, one that emphasized the importance of affordability.
Robertson notes, "We see some promise with this technology, whether it shows up in the Third World or not." In fact, what they are learning may be important to Chrysler vehicles on Third Ave. in Anytown, U.S.A. Robertson points out, for example, that hybrid powertrain systems may replace internal combustion engines for reasons of fuel economy. And the economic trade-off is that the hybrid will be a lot more expensive to produce. So savings—assuming that people are going to be able to buy these cars—must be realized elsewhere...such as making a variation of a CCV.
"CCV" is what the vehicle that is being engineered is being called. Given the idea of an emerging market, it was fairly evident that the translation was "China Concept Vehicle." After all, isn't China the country that automakers the world over would most like to sell lots of vehicles in? But now the initial letter is given a different—and this time official—meaning: "Composite."
This is a case of thermoplastic being pushed to the maximum.
Tom Moore is the general manager of Chrysler Liberty & Technical Affairs. Liberty is where the advanced work at Chrysler occurs.
"The name of the game of this whole car is `Simple,'" Moore says. Simple as in the body-in-white—including the interior, not just the exterior structure—consists of four large thermoplastic moldings. An outer is fitted to an inner for both the right and left sides. Then the two halves are adhesively joined. Voila! A vehicle structure.
Okay, there is a tubular steel frame that is bonded and bolted (four bolts) to the bottom of the plastic structure. The reason, Moore explains, is to provide additional stiffness and load-carrying capability.
Add a one-piece hood/fender/bumper and a fabric top, and you've got a vehicle body. The color is molded in, so there's no need for paint. And the interior is detailed, as well. The major added trim for the interior: the seats. This is really simple.
Even the engine is simplicity. "Briggs & Stratton developed it for automotive application," Moore says. This is a 25-hp, 800-cc engine. It has two cylinders (90o V). It is air cooled. It features an aluminum block. Attach the four-speed manual transmission, starter, alternator, and air cleaner, and the whole thing weighs less than 200 pounds. Moore claims that the vehicle can go 70 mph, a speed that he nearly attained on a Chrysler test track. "It takes a little longer to get to that speed," he admits.
The curb weight: 1,200 lbs.
"This is a basic transportation vehicle," Moore states. Five people. Cargo. Good to go.
Ken Mack is program management executive of Chrysler Liberty & Technical Affairs. His concern is with manufacturing the CCV.
Steel, he admits, is less costly per pound. But then he points out that the four pieces of thermoplastic that provide the CCV structure would be about 80 stampings in steel. And there would need to be fixtures and welding and painting and sealing for the steel components.
He puts this into the context of what it takes to build a Neon. Consider 100,000 units per year. The plant would be about 1.5-million ft2. It would represent an investment on the order of $1-billion. There would be facilities for engine, frame, transmission stamping, paint, and assembly. There would be about 2,000 people per shift building the cars. It would take about 19 or 20 hours to build one.
But consider the CCV plant. Size: 300,000 ft2. Investment: $300 million (just having no paint shop, he says, saves $350 million, and the elimination of major emissions concerns means that the plant could be located just about anywhere). The tooling would be 1/3 the cost of the conventional plant. Automation would be minimal: Robots to unload the four massive injection molding machines (one each for inners and outers, right- and left-hand sides). Robots to perform the adhesive application. Minimal material handling. Approximately 250 people per shift. And a build time on the order of six to seven hours.
Mack explains that the plant, as devised, would be more just-in-time than anything currently going. "This would be JIT for all body parts," Mack says. "It hasn't been done before." In an ordinary car plant, stampings are produced in quantity. They are stored before they are used. But in the CCV plant, the parts would be molded, then travel through six stations (during which time they'd cool) before being assembled. There would be no storage of parts. Other components would be delivered as close to line-side as possible, thereby minimizing material handling requirements.
Now it should be pointed out that much of this is, well, theoretical. The product and process are modeled in CATIA. Mack observes that this modeling and the creation of a digital library related to thermoplastic processing just may be one of the biggest gains that will be realized through the CCV program. That is, there is plenty of information available about processing steel. There is little information related to processing large thermoplastic components. This information is being generated as part of the program. What they are hopeful of is that the models of the cars created and crashed in the digital domain will behave just as cars in the physical domain will, thereby providing validation.
On the way to the CCV, there had to be plenty of developments. Given that Chrysler doesn't make large plastic parts, it had to turn to the outside for help. Larry Rybacki, Procurement and Supply executive, Chrysler Liberty & Technical Affairs, points out that about 70% of the components of a Chrysler car on the road today were produced by an outside supplier. Chrysler has done so much work on develop-ing supplier relationships that it has actually trademarked the term "Extended Enterprise."
What is called the "Body Core Team" was organized to help develop the CCV. It consists of seven suppliers and Liberty personnel. The Body Core Team leader is Fred Keller.
Keller says that Chrysler found Cascade. It was the 9,000-ton press that Cascade has that did it. So once that was accomplished, then there was a whole lot more to be done.
The material is certainly critical. It was developed for the CCV by Ticona GmbH (Frankfurt, Germany). This 15% glass-fiber reinforced material is, according to Ticona program director Steve Leyrer, a first in two respects: (1) it is the first thermoplastic being used in structural body components and (2) it is the first totally recyclable material (i.e., it can be reground and a percentage of the regrind can be added to the virgin material to produce like parts). It is tough, durable, and accepts color pigment, which is key to the molded-in color characteristic.
There was the issue of the molds, the massive molds necessary to produce the parts: each body inner weighs 70 lbs.; each body outer weighs 35 lbs. The molds necessary to do the job weigh up to 160 tons. They're 14 ft. long, 8 ft. high, and 6 ft. deep. Paragon Die & Engineering (Grand Rapids, MI) made the molds. Ralph Swain, the company's president, admits that the molds are three times larger than what they'd made before. So they decided to innovate. Instead of producing one huge mold, they segmented both the core and the cavity. There are six segments in all (three for the core, three for the cavity), thereby reducing the amount of machine time (instead of one machine being assigned to an entire component, three machines can be working simultaneously on pieces for, say, the cavity).
As they are looking for ways to more quickly make molds (it takes some 20,000 hours to build just one), Weber Manufacturing Ltd. (Midland, Ontario) is on the team. According to Jerry Smith, Sales and Marketing director of Weber, they have a nickel vapor deposition process that can be used to produce molds that are half the weight of steel tools, at 30% less cost, and more quickly than is possible when machining tool steel.
Although the press being used by Cascade is produced by Battenfeld, the Body Core Team's machinery supplier is Husky Injection Molding Technologies (Bolton, Ontario), which has extensive experience with processing PET materials.
Tooling for handling and checking the components is being developed by Progressive Tool & Industries (Southfield, MI). Jeff Angel, program director for the firm, says that the tooling being developed preserves the flexibility and rolling changeover capability that today's tooling requires.
Then, of course, there is the adhesive necessary to put the vehicle together. It is being provided by Ashland Chemical (Dublin, OH), which has experience supplying Chrysler with adhesives for the Viper program.
Rybacki admits that this team is unconventional in Chrysler's experience. "Never has a supplier group been involved this far ahead in a program—they were involved in the `Innovation Stage.'"
So they have a three-minute cycle time for the material. The part count is 1,100, as compared with 4,000 in a conventional car. The material is recyclable. So far, the parts being produced at Cascade look good. But they need more hours of running to assure reliability. Fred Keller comments, "Compared with the technology as we know it today in injection molding technology, this is a stretch but a realizable goal."
Will Chrysler make the CCV? Well, consider this: It has quite a record of making concept cars into production vehicles.