Canadian Plastics

Non-Automotive Transportation Turns the Corner

t's no secret that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of automotive parts in North America are facing increasing pressures from Asian competition. "When you talk to processors, you hear a common ...

February 1, 2007   By Mark Stephen, associate editor



t’s no secret that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of automotive parts in North America are facing increasing pressures from Asian competition. “When you talk to processors, you hear a common theme of trying to diversify their portfolio, not to be entirely in automotive but to have other industries that they have offerings in,” Timothy Brogla, senior development specialist with DuPont Engineering Polymers, in Chicago, Ill., said.

For many of these companies, which already own large tonnage injection molding machines, a possible avenue of exploration lies in molding parts for non-automotive, or power sports, applications, such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), boats, jet skis and snowmobiles. And resin manufacturers are ready to assist with new polymers designed for exactly these applications.

RESIN SUPPLIERS LEAD THE WAY

This is a partnership that, in some cases, is well underway. “Dow has historically concentrated on the Big Three automakers,” Ben Matuska, North American market manager for plastic durable goods with The Dow Chemical Company, in Houston, Tex., said. “But we are now focusing on new areas, such as ATVs and Seadoos. We have dozens of OEMs that we are working with for these types of products.”

But there are others, Matuska continued, who still have not yet realized that these opportunities are available. “A lot of non-automotive OEMs are still using metal and fibreglass, and even wood and vinyl, which are high-cost materials with a lot of variability in the process and limited design flexibility,” he said.

But even these manufacturers soon may have to reconsider. “They are being pressured into getting out of fibreglass and metal in order to meet various fuel and emissions regulations, which are tightening everywhere,” Matuska explained.

In an effort to attract these OEMs, Dow Chemical, for example, introduced its propylene-based Inspire EFP 500 Performance Polymer for thermoforming applications last year. The Inspire polymer is designed to provide flexibility, weatherability and impact resistance for ATVs, canoes and kayaks, as well as for more traditional automotive applications, Matuska said.

LIGHTENING UP, QUIETING DOWN

In some respects, the leap from producing automotive parts to non-automotive parts is not big. For example, a key driver in the automotive applications industry is a weight saving; car parts that are lighter, and yet tough and impact resistant, help achieve the all-important goals of fuel savings without sacrificing safety.

The same holds true in power sports applications. “Non-automotive manufacturers want the same things as automotive: parts that are low-weight above all, with high gloss, high depth of image, scratch resistance and good weatherability,” Matuska said.

DuPont’s Brogla offered a similar comment. “In the power sports area, any pound that you save can have a dramatic effect on speed and quickness,” he said. “And there is evidence that carving out weight from non-automotive applications has begun.”

For example, as part of a DuPont development program, Lawrence, Kan.-based OEM manufacturer HiPer Technology Inc. recently replaced aluminum with carbon-reinforced polyamide for wheels that the company manufactures for ATV racing models. “The polymer composite wheels created by HiPer Technology are four times stronger than aluminum but with significant weight savings, giving the racers better acceleration,” Brogla said.

If the weight saving can be achieved below the suspension it can also result in a better ride, because the machine does not have heavy wheels or suspension systems bouncing around as the vehicle covers tough terrain, Brogla continued. “Another idea is to replace aluminum tubing with polymer composite, rather than actual plastic, in suspension components. We fully expect that it could be stronger in many cases than the existing material, as well as providing further weight savings,” he said.

Another similarity to automotive is sound dampening. Indeed, given that power sports vehicles are often used at cottages and in the quiet countryside, noise reduction may be even more important. And here, too, new resins are making it possible for OEMs to push further into the market.

For example, Mercury Marine, of Fond du Lac, Wis., used DuPont’s new Delrin 150 acetal resin to manufacture a propeller hub isolator designed to ensure quieter, smoother gear shifting for marine engines. “The hub isolator virtually eliminates the noise, vibration and harshness effects perceived as ‘shift clunk’ when shifting from neutral into gear,” Scott Olig, materials engineer, research and development (R&D) at Mercury Marine, said.

THE MARKET, AND HOW TO ENTER IT

Manufacturers looking to get into the non-automotive market would also be wise to anticipate where that market is heading. “A recent area where molders have had a lot of success in automotive is lighting — reflectors, lenses and bevels — and it’s reasonable to expect this to transfer over into non-automotive,” DuPont’s Brogla said.

Despite the availability of resins designed for non-automotive applications, plastics processors seeking to diversify into these markets should also be aware of some potential pitfalls, insiders agree.

For example, one key difference between automotive and non-automotive manufacturing is the unit volume. “The number of parts produced for snowmobile or ATV models might be in the tens of thousands, whereas for automotive it’s in the hundreds of thousands,” DuPont’s Brogla said. “For this reason, the payback in non-automotive can be slower, which is important to know if an OEM is going to invest capital in producing non-automotive parts.”

But smaller production runs are not necessarily a drawback, according to Dean Palmieri, director of strategic marketing at Dow Automotive, in Auburn Hills, Mich. “I don’t think it’s a negative, because the OEMs tend to be smaller and have less people,” he said. “What matters is that they have the right organizational set-up, quality program management and an on-time delivery system.”

Dagmar Van Heur, manager of adjacent transportation markets with Dow Automotive, in Schwalbach, Germany, noted that injection molders looking to enter the non-automotive transportation market also need to be aware of what, and how many, their competition will be. “In non-automotive manufacturing, it’s not all about injection molding,” he said. “OEMs participating in this [market] have to be aware that thermoformers and blow molders are going to be their competition, and that, for this reason, there are more players.”

HELPFUL SIGNS FROM THE GOVERNMENT

Despite these risks, there are signs that governments recognize that opportunities in non-automotive transportation applications are growing. In December 2006, the Quebec provincial government announced it was investing $8.5 million to build a research centre to develop new technology for manufacturing recreational vehicles. The centre, which will be located in Sherbrooke, is a joint venture of Bombardier Recreational Products, of Valcourt, Que., and the University of Sherbrooke.

And in January 2007, the Federal Government made a $1.7 million investment in a $5.8 million R&D project that will be undertaken by parts manufacturer Camoplast Inc., which is also located in Sherbrooke, to reduce atmospheric emissions, decrease energy consumption and waste, and increase productivity by introducing a more efficient way to manufacture composite parts for recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles. The company also hopes to enable the production of larger parts, opening up new markets, Luc Janelle, vice president and director general of Camoplast’s composite solutions division, said.

The spirit behind these initiatives is echoed in the determination of resin manufacturers to engage automotive OEMs and Tier One suppliers to push plastics deeper into the power sports segment.


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