Vineet Kapila is the automotive product marketing manager for the Americas of materials-supplier Styron in Detroit. He has over 15 years of experience in the automotive industry, first as a manufacturing and product engineer with Ford Motor in 1995, and later in marketing roles at Bayer Material Science and BASF. He holds a master’s degree in plastics engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is a member of the board of directors for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE)—Detroit section, and holds a U.S. patent in gas assist injection molding technology.
How do you characterize the increased use of composites in the automotive industry?
Cost has obviously been one of the drivers for the adoption of composites. But recently some major regulatory changes concerning energy efficiency have come into play ― at least in the U.S. ― which means that by 2016, all automotive OEMs will have to comply. As a result of these changes, OEMs are now looking at all different kinds of technologies to reduce weight throughout their product portfolio. Weight reduction is therefore clearly a major driver for the adoption of composites in the automotive industry, which has followed closely similar advancements in the aerospace industry.
What challenges do you face with composites in the automotive market?
When you look at the automotive market in a general sense, the engineering focus on the OEM side has primarily been on sheet metal. OEMs have relied on the tier industry for the component side of it, so composite adoption necessitates OEMs to acquire the knowledge that marries plastics with metal, either in hybrid solutions or have the right type of composite in place to replace metal. That knowledge will take some time to build because the expertise is still in its infancy, at least from the OEM side. Another factor is trying to figure out the right kind of predictive tools to assess how new composites meet their performance and impact requirements, which is already very much in place for metals.
Why aren’t more manufacturers making products out of composites?
It’s mostly a question of who will take the lead. It’s a big challenge. It’s been piecemeal but some have already taken big leaps in the last few years in terms of exterior body panels, under the hood, and others interior parts. There has not been a concerted effort to push the boundaries of composites adoption, for example, in structural applications, and there was a lack of a real driver in the past. However, now with the 2016 fuel efficiency norms coming up, there’s more of a rush to look at these innovative solutions to replace or marry metal with composites.