Tuesday, April 26, 2016
In October of 1968 General Motors had a major problem. At the beginning of the 1970 model year, roughly September 1969, California was requiring all vehicles to have an onboard recovery for fuel vapors displaced from refueling and from evaporation while the vehicle was sitting in the sun, both of which were significant contributors to the infamous LA smog. While there were several technical solutions to the problem all had several drawbacks. The preferred solution was a coffee can filled with activated charcoal with several ports for the gas tank, the fuel management system and other needs. Unfortunately hot fuel vapors ate up the coffee can in short order. A stainless steel coffee can with arc welded ports survived the hell under the hood but ate up the profits on each car.
A creative engineer at GM's Rochester Products named Jack Castellana, the inventor of the pop out cigarette lighter and the trademark small, secure GM car key used from 1960s to the invention of the chipped key, read about a heat and chemical resistant structural plastic manufactured by DuPont that he thought might be a cost effective solution to making a canister for the system. He went to his local DuPont technical consultant who you know as J'Carlin to see if this new plastic had what it took to hold hot fuel vapor in hell, and if it could be manufactured into the elegant but complex shape required. The short answer was technically yes, but practically there was no way to produce it in the required volume by summer of 1969. Just the lead time on the huge injection molding machines that would be needed was several years. And tool design and manufacture took many more months than we had. Jack's reply was give me the technical solution and let me worry about the practical aspects.
Neither GM nor DuPont were happy about the risk involved in committing to the project but permitted preliminary design and testing to proceed without committing to production. But GM had a huge cost driver, and DuPont had huge excess capacity in nylon production, so both Jack and I got tacit approval to proceed with the preliminary work with the proviso that it would be nice but it won't happen. HEAR THIS you are both spinning your wheels IT WON'T FLY.
Jack asked me if I were sure I could solve the technical issues involved in production by summer 69? I assured him that they were not trivial but known solutions existed. He basically told me I would have to solve them as he and his boss were going to take on GM and have the plastic canister in production for the 70 model year. My immediate boss took a liberal view of "preliminary design and testing" and as long as I did not neglect my other clients, I could spend the time and money needed to support the GM project.
Once the mockups proved themselves on the Arizona test tracks, my first technical problem was to teach a zinc die casting tool builder to build a nylon mold. None of the nylon tool builders would take a chance on the intricate design details. Once I explained the forces involved in molding nylon they decided they could do the job if I would help with the plastic design necessities. We did fine except that I forgot to tell them nylon and cooling water don't mix. This is taken for granted in plastic tool building, but I didn't know that for zinc a little bit of water overflow helps cool off everything including the moldings. After a frantic night of rebuilding the cooling for the tool, the first shot the next day at a friendly nylon molder was perfect, all three parts of the three piece canister. I still have that shot as a souvenir of my part of the project. The friendly nylon molder was kept very busy on pre-production test canisters to prove the system and not incidentally the right formulation for the nylon. It didn't take long for Jack and his boss to get their atta-boys we knew you could do it and move into production mode. Unsurprisingly GM was able to cut into that two year line for production molding machinery to meet the model year deadline.
For my reward I got to write the material spec for GM and a nice promotion as well as the atta-boy. I am still mad at GM for taking out the line in the spec. that the container for the nylon had to have a Z on it for the Zytel brand name DuPont used, but I got everything else including some proprietary additives and a salt and pepper mix to insure the additives were in the ultimately black molding. After a few career building moves I was back to work at another nylon supplier and at a trade show I asked a friend who worked for a supplier of HDPE to GM about the canister. He said a high percent was grandfathered to DuPont, and the rest of them were competing for the remainder. He also commented that he would sure like to have a word with the SOB that wrote that spec. As he appeared to be non-violent I invited him to talk away. That night at the bar, when he heard that the project from inquiry to production was done in 10 months, he admitted that I had earned my SOB the hard way.
The other reward was that Delco ended up supplying ORVR canister systems to the other manufacturers and most US and many foreign cars used it. It wasn't too long before "Where is the smog" became a common tourist question in LA. I have to admit that it is nice to see the mountains from Azusa all day long, and know that I had a part in making it happen.