The annual Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division Innovation Awards were recently announced, and the winning components truly lived up to the billing. This year, awards were given for six categories: body interior, environmental, materials, body exterior, process/enabling technologies and chassis/hardware/powertrain. Ford took OEM honors with three awards, while DaimlerChrysler won in two categories and Nissan took the award in the materials category. But these awards are not about the OEMs; instead it is about the innovation that the supplier community is capable of bringing to the table.
The PT Cruiser multi-purpose package tray was the winner in the body interiors category. In developing the component, Lear Corp. tried to attain what they call the "Canvas Concept" by delivering a tray that was configurable to any and all customer needs. They appear to have met their targets. The tray is a versatile, effective component that can even be converted into a tailgate table for a pre-game party. Lear used a 30% glass-filled polypropylene via a bi-thermal molding process. They also delivered an industry-first application of heat transfer labels. The tray is reversible with one side having molded-in carpet and the other a concave surface to keep dirt and water from the rest of the vehicle. From personal use, I can attest that the tray is a fantastic addition to the PT Cruiser.
The winner in the environmental category may in time prove to be the biggest bang among a group of big bangs. Ford, Visteon and Honeywell won for the first powertrain use of injection-molded repolymerized nylon 6 in the automotive industry. Or more plainly put, they are using post-consumer carpet from commercial office buildings to make the 5.4-liter throttle body adapter. The recycled resin offers mechanical, physical and aesthetic properties identical to the virgin material. The repolymerized part achieved functional performance even though they were restricted to the aluminum design—a design that was not optimized for plastics. It also presented a 51% weight savings, a 20% piece cost savings due to the elimination of second finishing operations and an indirect savings of 54% due to lower tooling and capital tooling investment. From another perspective, it leads to a 200 million pound per year reduction in nylon waste from landfills. And it can (will) be used for several other applications.
In the materials category Dow Automotive took honors for the use of Syndiotactic Polystyrene (SPS) for Nissan mirror brackets. The material offered a 30% weight savings over the previous material, while needing only minor tooling changes to accommodate for shrinkage. Dow certainly believes the SPS will be a success—it has built a plant to produce the material with a capacity of 85 million pounds per year.
The Budd Company, most well known around Detroit for its stamping prowess, showed that it is certainly not a one-trick pony. The folks at Budd won for their one-piece compression molded SMC cargo box on the Ford Explorer SportTrac. The SMC box delivered a weight savings of 47 lb. compared to steel, and also avoided the need for a 25-lb bedliner. The Budd Co. estimated that the tooling for a similar box done in steel would have run approximately $35 million compared to the $5 million for the composite bed.
Textron won in this category for its work in real-time feedback between the internal melt pressure in the mold cavity and the injection molding machine's hydraulic system. By selectively placing pressure transducers, Textron is able to measure gas and melt pressures displacement transitions in real-time. The process delivers up to a 20% reduction in cycle time, a 3% scrap reduction and a 10% reduction in the required clamp tonnage for the component—a liftgate trim panel for the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
In the final category, LDM Technologies won for its controlled energy management bumper isolator on the 2001 Ford Windstar. To get a better understanding of this, think egg crates—really! The injection molded ultra-thin walled HDPE bumper isolators look like an egg crate placed under the fascia of the Windstar. But these are not ordinary egg crates: they are conical bumper isolators that can be tuned to simultaneously meet U.S. 5 m.p.h., European 15 kph., pedestrian impact, and high-speed crash requirements. The bumper isolators deliver a weight, and cost savings compared to the other materials, and are also a really cool idea.
And, I guess that is a fair assessment of all the SPE Innovation winners—they are really cool ideas put into production. After having the pleasure to participate in the process for nearly a decade, the ingenuity of the suppliers confirms that the spirit of innovation is alive and well in the automotive industry and that plastics are truly facilitating innovation.