What applications are you focusing on?
Currently, we’re focusing on the composite underbody. Based on the latest math modeling we have done, we can save 15 kg over an optimized steel component. We can also reduce the number of components from 16 down to one or two, which is a significant parts consolidation. Another area we are focusing on is composite seats. Where the underbody is made of glass fibers and glass fabric sheet molding compound materials, the seats are made of long fiber thermoplastics. The weight savings would be in the range of 2.5 to 3.5 kg depending on the type of seat.
What are some of the challenges with predicting performance?
There are a lot of variables to consider; from verifying and validating what has been predicted, to being able to design test methodologies that match the definition of modeling. When you’re modeling, you make assumptions for forces applied to components. It’s not easy to do tests so they overlap and simulate assumptions. It has to be mastered for every type of testing we do. For instance, one activity that ACC advises national labs on is predicting the flow of thermoplastics in a tool as well as the performance of molded component through FEA analysis, so you don’t have to make the tool and consistently redesign the tool. The science of predicting the performance of molded composites is a major enabler in reducing the cost of the finished parts.
How does USCAR interact with the composites industry?
In every aspect of composites, it’s not easy to find suppliers. One of the goals we have is to develop suppliers, because one of our big issues is lack of a sufficient number of suppliers. We used to have a group of more than 10 suppliers, but that’s now down to two or three because the economy has taken a hit on automotive. Any time we have gotten an application, there has to be a supplier attached to it, working with us and learning with us, so that when the research is done, the supplier is prepared to manufacture the component.
What trends have you noticed over the past year?
We see more emphasis on carbon fiber because lightweighting is becoming more important. The dollar-per-pound saved related to mass savings is going up because companies are more willing to pay more up front. Another interesting trend is the use of natural fibers, which relates to going greener and less dependent on oil. The need to go into renewable sources has been driving more emphasis on natural fiber and developing composites.