For automotive suppliers, a high-profile vehicle like the BMW i3 can be a rolling advertisement for its products.
Magna International, for example, produces thermoplastic liftgates for the BMW i3 and the Nissan Rogue, both of which debuted in 2013.
The i3 is rightly regarded as a rolling laboratory for BMW and its suppliers, but the Rogue demonstrated that Magna could produce its thermoplastic liftgate in high volume.
Thermoplastic may not be as sexy as carbon fiber, but it has its advantages. It is cheaper than aluminum, and can be molded into virtually any shape. That’s a big plus for exterior designers that want to create a complex shapes.
Thermoplastic also allowed Magna to reduce both the weight and the parts count of the Rogue’s liftgate by 30 percent, said Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process development for Magna Exteriors.
Magna has worked on this technology since the late 1980s, and it has had a long relationship with Nissan and Hitachi Chemical, which handled the lead engineering work.
While thermoplastic is relatively cheap and light, Hitachi and Magna had to overcome some hurdles. Plastic panels can expand and contract as temperatures fluctuate, and that can make it difficult to manage gaps between body panels.
But the Rogue liftgate’s thermal expansion is comparable to aluminum. “It behaves less like plastic and more like a metal,” Pilette said.
Magna produces the liftgate in Carrollton, Ga., and ships it to Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Since the liftgate comes in 12 colors with four equipment options, Magna sequences production for just-in-time delivery.
Magna, Hitachi and material suppliers LyondellBasell and Advanced Composites Inc. began work on the Rogue liftgate in 2011. Now that the Rogue and i3 are on the road, Pilette expects to win additional contracts.
“Now that we’ve demonstrated it at high volumes, we are seeing a lot of global interest,” Pilette said. “We think there will be a significant growth rate for three- and five-door models.”
As North America’s biggest automotive supplier, Magna has R&D resources that few can match. But even Magna must pick and choose among competing projects. Here are some precepts based on Magna’s experience:
- Seek partnerships with raw material suppliers that have the expertise to help design a product. For components made from high-tech materials, a consortium may be your best bet.
- Make sure that each component contract is profitable. ‘Loss leaders’ are a risky strategy – even if the automaker links them to the promise of more business.
- Don’t focus solely on your current business. You should also consider the next generation of contracts that come after it. Look ahead to 2020 and beyond.