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James Pike, chairman and CEO of CTA Acoustics, Inc. (Madison Heights, MI), says that making acoustic panels for vehicles is very similar to stamping steel: "It's all about molds and dies and presses. We have people here with years of experience in stamping–years–and they are in charge of making sure we make the best use of the equipment and materials, including lowering our die change times." Instead of pounding out sheet metal floor pans, exterior panels or the like, CTA's stamping experts form fiberglass, polyester, and resin into semi-rigid acoustic pieces, four pieces at a time.
The latest product in the company's arsenal reduces the fiberglass content from nearly 65% to 50%. This has been done at the request of the OEMs, who are looking for an assembler-friendly composition that reduces airborne contaminants, and is readily recyclable. Adding synthetic fibers such as polyester, polyolefin, and nylon creates a panel that is soft to the touch (like a cotton T-shirt), easily recycled (there is no need to separate materials), more sound absorbent, and–through the use of ultrasonic or die-electric bonding–eliminates non-compatible adhesives, while improving bond reliability. "The process for producing this material is patented," says Pike. The material itself is undergoing patent review, and should appear in model year 2004 vehicles.
When textile maker Milliken & Co. (Spartanburg, SC) began developing a soft, easy-care fabric for the health care industry, little did it suspect this same material would find its way into SUVs under the name "FXC." Aimed at SUV buyers with an active lifestyle, the fabric retains the softness and wear resistance of standard automotive seat fabrics, but with much higher levels of water repellence and stain resistance. By altering the yarn, fabric construction, chemistry and finishing techniques, Milliken can produce FXC-grade fabrics with finishes that range from textured to smooth and shiny to dull, or a pliability that is either soft or firm. This should increase potential applications for the material, including use in luxury SUVs.
In testing, FXC was rated at a minimum of 100 for water resistance (the best score possible). Water from a standard garden hose was unable to penetrate the fabric. On a scale of 1 to 5, it rated a 5 or better for its ability to repel oily stains. And though it may seem as though the material might be less than friendly under extreme thermal conditions due to its lack of permeability, senior Milliken researcher Phil Mott claims this isn't the case. "Because FXC products are fabric," he says, "they respond slowly to sudden drops and rises in temperature. So they won't get as cold in winter, or as hot in summer as leather or vinyl." And while the folks from Milliken envision this fabric covering the interiors of "extreme" SUVs, and being washed off after a hard day kayaking or climbing mountains, it's just as likely FXC will find its way into minivans and similar vehicles where juice, food, and other extreme-in-their-own-way contaminants rule the day.