Composites Manufacturing met Deborah Mielewski – chemical engineer and technical leader of the plastics research group at Ford – during a symposium for renewable plastic research at the American Art Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Mielewski started her career 26 years ago in the R&D department at the Ford Motor Company shortly after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Some of her noteworthy achievements include the implementation of soybean-based seat foam, wheat straw plastic bins, and the invention of money-reinforced coin trays.
What inspired you to research bio-plastic materials at Ford?
My job is to develop the next generation of sustainable automotive materials. In the late 1970s, there were very few women working in the automotive industry. In fact at Ford there was only one women’s restroom and it was near the front of the building. The idea of pursuing plastic material research for Ford Motor Company sounded great to me! I fell in love with my job and I still do — I’ve never thought about leaving.
Things have changed dramatically since then. Now we’re performing research with highly-technical data. Back then I was saddled with plastics and environmentally-friendly material research, and neither was popular until about 11 or 12 years ago. I was thrown out of a lot of conference rooms, which ended up being a good thing. It gave me the time I needed in the lab to develop the first soy-based foam.
How is Ford investing in sustainable composite components?
Even though we’re focused on bio products, lightweighting is a critical issue facing the auto industry. We’re going to see the replacement of steel components with plastic components and it will likely be with carbon fiber reinforcements to make high-end composite materials. My focus for natural fibers is to replace current plastic fibers that are weaker than glass fiber. There is an even bigger demand right now across the industry for high-performance plastic composites.
What is the soy-based foam you developed and what impact did it have on the industry?
There were a lot of technical challenges associated with the soy-based foam project, including a funny odor and shape on the first day of testing. But every project has its bumps and we continued to develop the foam. In the end we had usable soy-based foam ready when gas prices went over $100 a barrel in 2001. Our soy foam went from unpopular to ‘phone-off-the-hook’ in weeks. We were ready to use the product and launched the foam in the seat cushions of a new Mustang and received great publicity.