They Sure Don't Make Them Like They Used To

It first hit me at the K'98 show in Germany last October. All the innovations aimed at electronics, packaging, construction, and consumer products couldn't touch the excitement generated by the real star of the show: automotive.

Not so long ago, I frequently heard complaints that the car companies were a tough sell for plastics. Darned metal benders! So set in their ways! Now the global auto industry seems to be throwing its arms wide open to embrace plastics.

Whether the drivers are reduced cost or weight or both, plastics processors and resin suppliers today seem to have a carte blanche invitation to propose novel approaches to car design and construction. We are seeing thermoformed cars for China, rotomolded cars for Scandinavia, and injection molded cars for Western Europe. Blow molding is in on the action, too--for massive parts integration under the hood. Polyurethane is scoring with all-PUR instrument panels, and RIM is finding new life in thin-wall body trim. Composites are taking on new roles as major structural components such as cross-car beams. Inside the car, all-thermoplastic instrument panels are also becoming part of the basic vehicle structure. Meanwhile, hard-coated polycarbonate windows look like they are well on the road to commercial reality.

New materials and processes are being adopted in what looks like record speed. "Outsert"-molded metal/plastic hybrids are now on the road, and in-mold film-insert decorating may be next. "Nanocomposites" may soon become the buzzword in interior and exterior parts from body panels to instrument panels. New polyketones are showing up in fuel systems and syndiotactic polystyrene in electrical systems. Novel reactor-made alloys of polypropylene and acrylic are popping up in interior and exterior parts. They are even getting a shot at the four-piece injection molded frame for DaimlerChrysler's CCV.

With so much in the works, plastics in cars are just getting out of second gear.