Ur-Turn: The World Of Counterfeit Plastics

by Ur-Turn

TTAC reader Dean Trombetta is back, giving an insider’s look at a widely reported but mis-understood story involving automotive plastics.

Last week, Aston Martin announced the recall of more than 17,000 vehicles for defective throttle pedals. The term “counterfeit plastic”, was frequently mentioned in the story, and for those not in the plastics business, the term may seem confusing. We usually associate the term “counterfeit” with consumer goods, specifically luxury items like watches, handbags and women’s accessories. Despite being in the plastics industry, I wasn’t sure what initial reports were referencing. But further research has shed some more light on the matter, and there seem to be two possible scenarios at play here.

Typically, when a new plastic part is designed, the engineers pick a type of plastic for the part. They do not typically specify a specific grade, just a type such as “nylon 6/6” or “ABS”. The blueprints are drawn for the part and a material specification is put on the print to call out what material is to be used.

The engineers at the OEMs have dozens and sometimes hundreds of material specifications that have been written over the years that provide detailed requirements for a plastic material such as UV resistance, tensile strength etc. When the tooling is complete, sample parts are molded with a material that meets the specification, and these initial parts are submitted to the OEM in what is referred to as a Production Part Approval Process (PPAP) package.

This package includes the parts and supporting documentation proving that the materials used are able to meet the specification on the print, and that the part has the correct dimensions. Once the package is approved by the OEM and production begins, the supplier is not allowed to change anything without submitting a new PPAP. This means that the supplier is not allowed to just willy-nilly switch the material to a cheaper grade without getting approval first.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have “approved source lists” attached to each material specification that actually call out specific grades of plastic that can be used. Upon getting the print, the supplier looks up the specification in a database and it tells them to use DuPont grade 123 or Dow grade 456. Strangely, GM Ford and Chrysler are really the only ones that do this. Virtually every other automaker does it differently. Only appearance parts and parts deemed critical have approved sources and all other parts have a specification only and the supplier is responsible for making sure the material they choose meets the specification. Suppliers to these other companies are still not allowed to switch materials without submitting a new PPAP after production begins.

However, for some suppliers, the temptation to use cheaper materials is too difficult to resist. They might switch to a cheaper grade and make sure that the new material still meets the specification or they might just hope that it meets. If a supplier gets caught using a “non-approved” material, they could get in some trouble and if this is discovered during a recall situation, things can really get ugly. This scenario is not that uncommon and is what I thought may have happened to Aston.

However, after hearing that representatives from DuPont were involved in the Aston Martin, I think something else might have happened.

There are currently over 60,000 grades of plastic available commercially. These materials all have different properties. There are a relative few chemical companies that actually convert petroleum distillate to plastic but most plastic parts are not made of this stuff. The raw material is sent to a compounder that melts the plastic down and adds all sorts of ingredients such as color, heat stabilizers, impact modifiers, UV stabilizers, reinforcements such as fiberglass and numerous other additives.

There are thousands of these compounders all over the world that take basic “virgin” plastic and convert it into the materials that are used to make automotive parts. Some of these compounders are very small companies. Often these compounders will get a sample of another manufacturers material and reverse engineer it. They can often find out what the properties are and make an “equivalent” grade. This is not illegal assuming that they are not violating any patents, and patents on plastic materials are exceedingly rare.

The line gets crossed when someone makes a material and then labels it using someone else’s trade name and grade number. To be fair, sometimes this happens innocently. Some grades of plastic such as DuPont Zytel 70G33 are so ubiquitous, that the grade has become synonymous with that type of material, in the way that brand names like Kleenex, Xerox and Coke are synonymous with the generic product. I run into many people that refer to all acetal material as “Delrin” which is actually another DuPont trade name. I personally believe that many compounders will refer to their own product with a brand name out of laziness, rather than any intent to deceive other parties.

Sometimes, the intentions are not so innocent. There was a big case in the 90’s that involved a company selling generic acetal resin and labeling it Celcon M90 which was and still is a trademark of a large manufacturer called Ticona. This company was even making counterfeit bags and boxes and providing fake test reports for the material. The owner of this company ended up serving 5 years in prison.

In the Aston Martin example, we can see how the idea of a “counterfeit” plastic part came to fruition. A Chinese compounder likely wanted to make an equivalent to the aforementioned Zytel 70G33, a common plastic for automotive applications. Ironically, the raw nylon to make this plastic has to be purchased from DuPont or BASF. Other additives like glass fiber, black pigment and copper based heat stabilizer can be purchased elsewhere.

While any given outfit can theoretically make this blend, doing it cheaper than DuPont is next to impossible. DuPont’s size enables them buy all of the ingredients at a much lower cost. In order to entice the supplier to buy the “generic equivalent” from your own small outfit, you have to cut a few corners to make up the cost difference. That means less heat stabilizer, a cheaper coupling agent and even usng scrap nylon parts that are recycled into the mix.

All of a sudden, the material that might cost $3.50/lb from DuPont can be sold for 50 cents on the dollar. Just put the material in fake DuPont bags and provide some DuPont paper work that you made with a pirated version of Microsoft Word and you’re in business and pray that you don’t get discovered. This time, they ended up in a product that they had no business being in – a high-dollar exotic car.

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