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Big Three carmakers unite to beat problems with plastics. US companies have lead on new technology, and want to keep it

By the end of the century, some industry planners believe, one out of every three cars and light trucks will have a plastic body. Plastics and related composites have several advantages, including their light weight, their surprising strength and resiliency, and their ability to be molded into a variety of unusual and complex shapes. This can reduce the number of components on a vehicle. It's not surprising, then, that plastics have become one of the big buzzwords in the automobile industry.

But synthetic materials also pose a number of problems.

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And because auto companies in the United States don't think they can solve all those problems on their own, they're going to try to solve them together.

Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler are forming a unique consortium to conduct research on a wide variety of plastics and ways to use them.

``[We] need to keep competitive on leading-edge technology'' in the use of plastics and related composites, a source at GM says. ``It's an area in which [US automakers] have a lead, and we want to maintain it.''

This will mark the first time the Big Three have actively worked together on research and development in decades.

The research program is authorized under a recent amendment to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The Cooperative Research Act of 1984 is designed to permit industrywide, pre-proprietary research in leading-edge technologies under way in many other industrial nations, notably Japan.

``The problems we wish to address are so pervasive, by pooling our resources, we can solve the problems faster,'' says Stuart Fry, Ford Motor Company's vice-president for technical affairs.

One of those problems is technology. ``The technology is not up to the stage where you can compete with other materials in manufacturing, processing, and design,'' says David Chang, an advanced-vehicle designer with General Motors' Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group.

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Costs are still higher than for those of metals. And production processes are relatively slow. While metal stamping presses can turn out hundreds of fenders every hour, plastic molds generally turn out no more than 60.

``One thing that bothers us with composites is the big variability among parts with regards to strength and repeatability,'' Mr. Fry says.

It is still hard to guarantee precisely the same appearance and characteristics every time a piece of plastic is molded. That may not be significant in terms of appearance - a slight wave to a hood, for example - but it makes it difficult to fully predict and design around the way various composites will behave in crashes.

Problems with plastics production contributed to the decision by the General Motors Corporation earlier this year to scrap its sporty Fiero two-seater. Those problems have also prevented Ford from building its own plastic-bodied car. Meanwhile, the Chrysler Corporation recently scrubbed its own plastic-car program, dubbed Project Genesis, because company officials did not believe they were moving quickly enough on the development of key technologies.

Now the Big Three hope they can find more answers under the antitrust exemption, where research will be limited to nonproprietary topics. The effort will be jointly and equally funded, and is expected to last 12 years.

The companies have declined to discuss the amount of money that will be spent on the pre-competitive program, though Subi Dinda, manager for organic materials development at Chrysler, and a member of the consortium project, describes it as ``a substantial investment.''

``Certainly, the Japanese have been doing this sort of thing through various MITI [Ministry of International Trade and Industry] teams,'' says Irv Poston, manager of composites at General Motors' advanced engineering staff. ``They have study teams that pool information for what you could call the common good.''

The consortium will be managed by two-member committees from Ford, Chrysler, and GM. Suppliers of raw materials and composite components will also be expected to participate.

``It's important to have a plastics-related consortium,'' says Jerry Purcell, president of the plastics division at the Budd Company, an auto parts maker. But for the moment, Mr. Purcell says, he is not sure just how big a role Budd will play in the new project. ``We still don't know what they plan to do.''

GM's Dr. Chang believes the consortium could lead to a much broader use of plastics and composites in structural applications.

``You need to learn a lot of things to build credibility,'' he says. ``It's been a chicken-and-egg thing. You need a lot of confidence before you build, but you need to build before you get confidence.''

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