Composites create inroads within the shifting demands of the automotive industry.
Composite production is ramping up in both Europe and the U.S., as the auto industry looks to shed weight, and companies invest in partnerships and facilities to meet the demand. Composites are also making inroads under the hood, in transmissions, and in structural components, too.
“When you talked to car companies five years ago, all you heard was cost, cost, cost,” says Jeffrey Helms, global automotive director for Ticona Engineering Polymers, in Auburn Hills, Mich. “You hear now that weight is the new cost. The value of a pound of weight is significantly higher than it was five or 10 years ago.”
Helms says glass fiber reinforced thermoplastics will continue trending upward in automotive applications, driven by several factors. “Glass fiber reinforced thermoplastics have been the norm in European vehicle instrument panel applications, and are just starting to launch in North American designed vehicles,” he says.
With Chinese designed vehicles on average 30 percent heavier than their Western counterparts, this is driving an acceleration of plastics and composites use in vehicles designed there, he says. In May, Ticona announced plans to nearly double production at its Celstran long fiber reinforced thermoplastic manufacturing unit in Nanjing, China.
“Traditionally composites have been used in body panels,” says Mark Murfitt, sales manager for Core Molding Technologies, in Columbus, Ohio, but he thinks growth opportunities exist in structural components.
“There are many instrumentation panels and consoles made of composites,” Helms says, as everyone is getting more comfortable with them. There’s lots of potential for further penetration in composites in vehicles: under the hood, and in vehicle exteriors. Front ends are pretty standard these days,” and he says seating is also a good target for weight reduction.
Jim Cederstrom, Detroit Automotive Business Development Manager for Bulk Molding Compounds, Inc., in West Chicago, Ill., says that due to the challenging environment under the hood — a place rife with chemical and temperature pressures, “a lot of the power-train sealing components couldn’t be composite in the past.” But as a result of advances in composite technology, he now sees a lot of action in those applications, including oil pans, transmission systems, and hydraulic pump housings. Federal incentives will facilitate under-the-hood composite use, he says.
“On the face of things composites should win hands down every time,” says Andrew Hopkins, executive vice president of RheTech, Inc., in Whitmore Lake, Mich. “With composites, you can simplify the design. The basic question is why do they have such a minimal share of the automotive market?” He says part of the answer is composite manufacturers need to educate designers to understand the benefits of composites.