By Rhoda Miel, Plastics News Staff
Detroit, Michigan -- Interested in sedans? Ford Motor Co. pulled the wraps off its new Fusion midsize car 9 Jan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Or maybe you want to swing by Honda Motor Co. to get a glimpse at its Accord prototype, located in Honda's booth just across the way from Ford's display.
Small cars? Take a left turn at Honda and make your way to Chrysler Group llc's Dodge Dart, or just continue straight and make a right into General Motor llc's Chevrolet exhibit for the Spark.
Sports cars? There's a revved up Veloster Turbo at Hyundai and Lexus, Daimler and Accura all have high-octane concepts. For the more eco-conscious, there's the newest Toyota Prius, the small C version, as well as the first North American showings of BMW's all-electric i3 and i8 models.
"If there is a trend out there, maybe it's that product development is back," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for consulting group LMC Automotive of Troy, Michigan. "It's a little bit of everything. Everybody wants to be back and everybody wants to be in every segment."
After nearly three years of depressed auto sales and a Detroit auto show that reflected the gloom and doom of bankruptcies and shut-downs rampant among both automakers and auto suppliers, the industry is well into recovery and is even having problems keeping up with demand for some parts and products.
That is clear both in the new-vehicle and concept-vehicle launches in Detroit, Schuster said, as well as packed hallways and full parking lots all around the show's home at Detroit's Cobo Hall for the media and industry preview.
"The excitement is back," he said.
So are the numbers. In 2009, the North American auto industry produced 8.6 million cars - a nearly 32 percent drop from 2008. A gradual climb back began in 2010, when production nearly reached 12 million cars, but insiders feared it was too soon to celebrate. In 2011, though, automakers finished the year just shy of 13.5 million cars. By 2014, Schuster forecasts production will reach 15 million vehicles, a number that used to be considered an average year.
Those numbers add up. Magna International Inc., an Aurora, Ontario-based maker of everything from seating to exterior body panels to chassis, expects a net increase in total production sales during the two-year period of 2012-14 of $3200 million globally. Half of that increase will come from North America, the company said in an 11 Jan announcement to shareholders.
"The country finally seems to be pulling out of its economic slump," said Bob Carter, group vice president and Toyota division general manager for Toyota Motor Corp.'s US. Toyota Motor Sales group. "The auto market is humming, and there's a long list of reasons why sales should be hot this year and the next, and the next."
But the excitement is not just about sales, said Chris Murphy, industry director of automotive for DuPont. In the aftermath of the auto sales slump, the industry began embracing new technology. There are increased opportunities for new products and new materials to win a place on vehicles.
Carmakers BMW AG and Daimler AG are both investing in carbon-fibre composites for lighter cars, but more mainstream thermoplastic composites are getting plenty of attention too. Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc. is introducing new lines of glass-filled composite technologies to keep up with the industry.
"These are going to be moving into a whole different arena," said Tom Kerr, vice president of fibreglass. "The challenge is how you get into this market. You have to know what's going to be required."
Changes are going on even in parts buyers might not notice.
Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies of Plymouth, Mich., is winning business and accolades for a plastic transmission accumulator piston, which replaces aluminium. Sweden's Trelleborg Automotive AB is introducing a glass-fibre-reinforced plastic and metal brake pedal, replacing a traditionally all-metal part.
And consumers are open to new products and technology too. Hybrids, which were once a niche product offered by two automakers, are now offered across product lines from nearly every company. With smart phones showing up in more and more pockets, consumers are more comfortable with touch-screen navigation offered as an option in cars and trucks alike.
Murphy points to Ford for one example of the open outlook.
In March, Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford introduced the F-150 truck with an optional EcoBoost V-6 engine with a turbo charger, direct injection technology and lighter weight - an engine that also uses plastic in multiple areas both for performance and decreased weight, including a cam cover using DuPont high-temperature plastics. Ford hoped to convince 25-30 percent of buyers to invest in it. Instead, an average of 41 percent of buyers are paying up for the EcoBoost option.
Ford sold more than 100 000 F-150s with EcoBoost in nine months in 2011. That comes despite truck buyers' historic preference for bigger engines and despite the V-6 option carrying a higher price. The V-6 with EcoBoost costs $1,000 more than Ford's 5.0-liter V-8 engine.
"To work on new technology, and then to have consumers like it too, is very exciting," Murphy said.
Beyond the technology and new products, Schuster noted that the bottom line for the most suppliers and carmakers has also improved. As the industry consolidated, cut costs and trimmed surplus production, companies got lean and learned not only how to survive lower production levels, but actually turn a profit.
"There's money to be made out there now at 13 million units, but just imagine how much more money will be made at 15 million or 16 million," he said.
The issue that will be facing the industry now and for the next two years, Schuster said, will be filling that new manufacturing pipeline with the smaller manufacturing footprint, while also balancing capital expenditures.
He said he expects that companies will keep a wary eye toward controlling costs so they do not end up overextended again the next time production slows down.