Robert Schoenberger Editor ||

Before Spanish explorers discovered Mexico, people there were drinking pulque, the fermented sap of the agave plant. The Spanish taught the locals a little trick called distillation, and tequila was born. But to Pre-Columbian Mexico, the agave was far more than the source of libations.

The cactus-like plant has broad, flat, thick leaves that end with sharp spines. If you carefully tug on one of those spines, long fibers will pull away from the yard-long leaves. Effectively, you get a needle with a few feet of very strong thread already attached. As the Smithsonian Institute puts it, the plant “provided the fiber for clothing, brushes, spoons, nets, fans, rope, and even paper. The central stems make musical instruments and are strong enough to be used for building, with leaves that provide roofing. Leaves can also be used for fuel. Sharp spines made pins and sewing needles, as well as arrowheads.”

Well, add another use – Ford and Jose Cuervo are studying ways to use agave plants left over from tequila production as fiber reinforcement for bioplastics. If the project works, interior panels in your future car could mimic building materials popular centuries ago.

Those long fibers that made agave such a great building material is exactly what makes it attractive to Ford, the company’s engineers say.

“There are about 400 lb of plastic on a typical car,” says Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability research department. “Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet. It is work that I’m really proud of, and it could have broad impact across numerous industries.”

Ford began researching the use of sustainable materials in its vehicles in 2000 and today uses eight sustainable-based materials in its vehicles – soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber, and rice hulls.

So obviously, my message is that with IMTS 2016 rapidly approaching, every manufacturer should stop what they’re doing, scrap their old machines, and start harvesting rice straw and agave leaves to supply future-generation vehicles. Walking the show floor in Chicago, I expect to see several machining centers tuned for coconut fiber processing.

The more serious note is that the materials and processes that companies use to make cars and trucks are changing. Shops that can only process mild steels will become commodity producers – facing intense competition for a shrinking pool of work. Successful suppliers will be able to deal with a wider range of difficult-to-process materials, and they’ll develop cost- and weight-saving techniques to protect their profit margins.

Because while Ford is effectively turning the clock back 500 years by using the agave plant as a building material, history won’t be as kind to companies producing car parts the way they did 20 years ago.