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One man watches as another gives a floor panel board the knee-load test.

NRRI researcher Steve Kossett and Georgia Pacific engineer Harry Wirz give a floor panel board the knee-load test.

Flooring it: NRRI partnership benefits automotive industry

NRRI partnership benefits automotive industry

By June Kallestad

From eNews, January 13, 2005

No business is more competitive than the automobile industry. Each manufacturer wants to produce vehicles with the latest conveniences and trend-setting style. That means constantly reinventing the wheel--or at least what rests upon the wheels.

Over the past couple of years, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, has joined with Duluth's Georgia Pacific Superwood hardboard plant in an unlikely partnership with the automotive industry. Wood stopped being used regularly as a constructive element in vehicles back in the 1940s and 1950s. But wood products, used for floor panels in SUV cargo areas, can offer today's vehicles more strength and reduced weight with less cost than a comparable plastic component.

The most popular SUVs on the market offer a lot of storage options in their versatile cargo areas. Lift-up floor panels offer space for stow-away seats, spare tires, or more cargo. But the problem is making the floors strong enough to hold a lot of weight.

"Manufacturers need the panels to withstand a 250-pound knee load--the full weight of a person kneeling on the floor of the cargo area," explains Georgia Pacific engineer Harry Wirz. "Plastic panels bend and deflect, especially when it's hot in the vehicle. They're also heavy and expensive to make." He adds that, because plastic is a petroleum-based product, rising oil prices make the wood-based board panels even more competitive.

Using the expertise and large press available at NRRI, Georgia Pacific developed a panel they call "sandwich board"--two face sheets of hardboard laminated to both sides of a rigid foam core. On the Ford Escape cargo area, the sandwich board was tested and found to be five pounds lighter and twice as stiff as plastic panels used in previous models.

"The key to being successful in the automotive industry is being able to show the auto engineers and designers a full-sized, functional part," says Wirz. "We can show them the difference between what they're currently using and what we offer through our fabrication customers. Without the prototype we wouldn't get their attention."

NRRI engineer Steve Kossett has assisted Georgia Pacific in producing prototype load floor panels for more than 15 different vehicles over the past three years. Georgia Pacific's sandwich board panels can be found in 2005 models of the Ford Escape and Dodge Magnum. It is also being considered for a number of other new models at General Motors, Honda, Mitsubishi, Saturn, BMW, and Ford.