At its 34th-annual Innovation Awards gala in November 2004, the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) International’s Automotive Division board of directors awarded a new, hybrid glass-mat thermoplastic (GMT) composite/steel lower instrument panel (IP) carrier with a first-place finish for the Most Innovative Use of Plastics in the Body Interior category.
Featured on vehicles from Ford, Volvo, and Mazda, the IP carrier is claimed to reduce weight, provides parts consolidation for easier assembly, lowers cost, and improves noise/vibration/harshness (NVH) and crash performance. Joining representatives from the OEMs and Tier supplier, Faurecia, in accepting this award were members from the three molders – FPK and Faurecia Molding Div. in Europe and Nishikawa in Japan – and the materials supplier, Quadrant Plastic Composites. The same IP carrier is now being used with 6 IP designs. “It is an enormous success story for us and our partners and tells that good partnership and team-working leads to successful products”, says Volker Fritz, CEO of Quadrant Plastic Composites.
It was designed as part of a new cockpit strategy called Syntes by Faurecia to commonize components and systems across multiple platforms, and meet or exceed all global safety standards and cost targets, while still retaining each vehicle’s signature look and feel. The Syntes cockpit system that the hybrid IP carrier is used on integrates over a dozen features, including the vehicle’s cross-car beam, and is lighter than traditional steel-intensive cockpits. This new concept launched last year on an entire Ford platform – for the Ford Focus and C-Max, the Volvo S40 and V50, and the Mazda3 passenger vehicles.
The IP – and in particular its carrier – has a very important structural and safety role in a passenger vehicle, essentially functioning as the skeleton of the cockpit. It holds the front-end of the passenger compartment, ties left and right side of the vehicle together, stiffens the front-end for crash, supports the steering column, holds the airbag deployment canisters and HVAC system, and is the structural component from which hangs the IP topper, instrument cluster, centre console, knee bolsters, and glovebox door. The IP carrier must pass rigorous testing, since it must withstand high loading during impact. Required safety standards and tests vary by geography.
Moving from a multi-component, steel design to the hybrid composite/steel carrier was a key element to meeting program goals. A traditional metal carrier is essentially a steel tube – often called the cross-car beam – off which hangs 2 end brackets (to secure the IP to the body-in-white (BIW) on each side of the car), the cowl top brace, steering column bracket, fusebox-door bracket, footwall brace, tunnel brace, central display-unit structure, and glovebox brackets. This system provides excellent crash resistance and stiffness, but is heavy, labour intensive to assemble, and can lead to NVH issues due to all the components and their fasteners.
In contrast, the new compression-moulded GMT composite/steel design features a highly complex, single-piece moulding that incorporates the cross-car beam, and integrates the functions and fixations for the air ducting, airbag support, steering-column support, and knee bolster. As constructed, the hybrid carrier greatly simplifies assembly, reduces NVH performance, reduces weight 2-3 kg, and – for the first time ever with a single carrier design – meets or exceeds all U.S., European, and world safety standards (for full frontal and offset crashes with belted and unbelted occupants) – actually improving crash performance in some tests vs. the baseline steel design. It does all this while reducing overall manufacturing costs 12%, and offering high productivity) and high repeatability and reproducibility (R&R) on low-cost tooling. In fact, because the same common carrier can now be used for so many different styles and platforms, tooling costs were significantly reduced, as was the cost of analysis and crash testing. Additional program savings were achieved through clever tooling design, since an insert is used so the same tooling can mould IPs for both left- and right-side drive vehicles. After the vehicles useful life, the IP carrier can be disassembled and recycled, since it is made of a polypropylene/chopped glass fibre composite and the steel beam. Two technology breakthroughs were featured in this design. First, a new material – Quadrant GMT E100F40 composite – and optimized blank placement were required to provide improved flowability and knitline integrity to ensure the cross-car beam was fully encapsulated at junction points during moulding. The new grade – which was developed after earlier attempts to make direct-long-fibre-reinforced thermoplastic (DLFT) materials work – also provided higher impact strength while allowing performance targets to be met at 2 kg lower weight. Second, a very significant breakthrough was required to prevent the steel tube from being crushed during compression moulding in the 1,500-2,000 T, high-speed presses. In fact, Faurecia was awarded a process patent for this development. Because of both technologies, the steel tube is fully encapsulated at junction points by the GMT composite during moulding, with the resin matrix flowing completely around the beam at these locations. This eliminates knitlines issues seen in injection-moulded parts and helps prevent the steel bar from tearing away from the carrier during a crash. Three moulders are producing parts for Ford, Volvo, and Mazda worldwide using the tooling and GMT composite. These are FPK, S.A. in Spain, Faurecia Molding Div. in France, and Nishikawa in Japan. The long-standing SPE Innovation Awards program is affectionately referred to as “The Academy Awards of the Plastics Industry,” and is considered the premier recognition event in the automotive and plastics industries. This is the second year in a row that global-supplier Quadrant has received top honours at the Innovation Awards event for one of its applications. Last year, the composite supplier was honoured along with moulder Seeber and BMW for the world’s first application of a new family of SymaLITE lightweight reinforced thermoplastic (LWRT) composites used on the underbody shields for the new 5 Series passenger cars.
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