Jeffrey Helms is the global automotive director for Ticona Engineering Polymers, in Auburn Hills, Mich., and is responsible for managing the firm’s dealings with automotive OEMs around the world. His experience and expertise encompasses engineering plastics, composites, coatings, urethanes, as well as materials regulatory requirements. Previous to assuming his current position, Helms was responsible for high-performance engineering plastics solutions, as Ford Motor Company’s Global OEM Manager.
What is impacting composite adoption in the auto industry?
The main drivers are weight and costs. There plenty of opportunities for further penetration of composites use in vehicles such as under the hood and vehicle exteriors. Fuel economy targets are driving vehicle weight reduction, and also the fact that, ultimately, automakers are still cost sensitive.
What are areas of opportunity to reduce weight with composites?
Weight is the new cost and lightening the vehicle can be accomplished in multiple ways. You see composites used in instrument panel systems, door modules and center consoles. There is some adoption in seating too, and spare tire hubs need pretty good stiffeners. There are also composite battery trays and engine covers.
How can more weight reductions be achieved through composite automotive applications?
There are composite structures in front-end systems, and there are parts — the radiator, the fan and headlamps — that are routinely made of both plastic and metal parts and the metal requires multiple stampings. We try to eliminate some of those parts by fabricating multiple individual parts into one composite piece.
The auto industry is getting more comfortable with composites now that it has a little experience with the material. The tools and data in the industry also are getting more sophisticated. For example, front ends are pretty standard these days as well as door molding. There are many instrumentation panels and consoles that have been made of composites and aluminum for some time.
What are the trends in bio-fiber composite technology?
Bio-fiber is being used but it’s still on the fringe. You see some usage among automakers as part of a sustainability strategy but, you don’t get the same kind of structural performance because natural fibers just don’t get you there.
Are the fuel economy CAFE standards hastening composite adoption?
I suspect there will be other standards after 2017, and as a result there is going to be a big demand for lighter vehicles. We’ll see a broader range of adoption in what was looked at in the past as a premium factor. You can already see aerospace is going down that path.
How will the growing popularity of electric-powered vehicles impact composite adoption rates?
Weight is more important within electric vehicles (EV). Therefore, mass weight reduction is probably a leading factor in an EV or a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV). We’ve studied this quite a bit. The optimistic prediction is that electric vehicles will be 10 percent of the market in the next few years. Pessimistically, that prediction is three to five percent. Either way, it’s all being driven by fuel costs. When gas hits $7 a gallon in North America, composites will look very cost effective.