First integrated front-end module is SPE automotive award winner

The integrated front-end module, made with sheet molding compound and first used on the 1996 model year Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, is the Hall of the Fame winner, awarded by the Automotive Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

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The first North American implementation of an integrated front-end module (FEM) system used on 1996 model year (MY) Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans produced by Ford Motor Co. was selected as the 2013 Hall of Fame winner by the Automotive Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE, Troy, Mich., USA) for the group's 43rd-annual Automotive Innovation Awards Competition.

To be considered for a Hall of Fame award, an automotive-plastic component must have been in continuous service in some form for at least 15 years and preferably have been widely adopted within the automotive or ground-transportation industries. This application meets those criteria: it has been in continuous use on Ford vehicles for 17 years, and as of 2012 it is estimated to have been featured on 5 million Ford Taurus derivative vehicles worldwide, plus has been adapted by other automakers including Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, Daimler AG, PSA Peugeot Citroën, and Chrysler Group LLC.

According to SPE Hall of Fame committee co-chair, Nippani Rao, president, Rao & Associates, “The integrated FEM has proliferated widely because polymer composites allow engineers to mold in features and locators, and to integrate a number of previously separate subsystems and functions into a single component that saves money, reduces weight, and provides for faster, more accurate, and less costly assembly."

FEMs were originally multi-piece stamped steel or aluminum assemblies that gradually evolved into non-integrated (radiator-support frameworks) on low-volume Ford commercial trucks (supplied by General Tire Co.) as well as to similar sub-assemblies on vehicles by Volkswagen in bulk-molding compound (BMC) polypropylene composites ― an application deemed by Ford engineers to provide insufficient strength and thermal performance for the Taurus/Sable platform.

The Ford team evaluated numerous materials and process options and settled on compression-molded sheet-molding compound (SMC) for optimized cost, weight and functional performance on the original program. Over the years, thermoplastic composites have come to dominate the application, changing initially to glass-mat thermoplastic (GMT) composites, and later to injection or compression-molded long-fiber thermoplastic (LFT) composites with steel inserts or to inline compounded (ILC) direct-LFT composites with or without additional continuous-strand fiberglass reinforcements. With each generation and technology iteration, more weight and cost have been removed from the module.

"Switching to SMC on the original program allowed us to eliminate significant numbers of parts and their specific design drawings/computer-aided engineering models, stamping tools, gauges, fixtures, plus purchasing and logistical tasks," notes John A. Young, engineer-Product Development at Ford. "Thanks to composites-enabled part integration, we were able to eliminate 22 major sub-components and 27 fasteners per vehicle. We ended up with a single 'ready-to-install' structural carrier with self-locating fasteners. This, in turn, improved assembly operations since it provided an 'open architecture' for powertrain installation, eliminating nine line locations and 15 work-cell locations. We also reduced weight 22 percent and costs 14 percent while boosting quality 22 percent vs. conventional design and assembly practices at the time. Additional benefits included improved serviceability and documented reductions in collision insurance costs while meeting all safety requirements, making this a win-win all the way around."

Moving away from metallic systems to molded-in-color composites also eliminated volatile- organic compound (VOC) emissions and energy usage associated with priming and painting plus welding metal parts. And thanks to component weight reduction, this application also helped reduce fuel usage and greenhouse-gas emissions over the use life of millions of vehicles. This Ford innovation won SPE Automotive Division's 1996 Chassis/Hardware and Grand Award prizes, and also received recognition from the American Plastics Council and the SMC Automotive Alliance.

The award will be presented on Nov. 6 at SPE’s annual Automotive Innovation Awards Gala held at Burton Manor in Livonia, Mich. Visit speautomotive.com/inno for more information.