Is image an issue?
I think it is image issues — “composites are not very strong, not very safe.” A major piece of education needs to be done in the public arena explaining the benefits. We need to educate designers, engineers and the public at large that these are good materials to use and that they have benefits that justify the costs.
How big of an issue is plant retooling in the composite vs. metal equation?
With the SMART car, they built a whole new production facility; it was a total greenfield. With the Nano, it was the same story of a completely new production facility. When you look at Ford, GM, or Toyota, there’s such a huge investment in metal stamping so to introduce a completely new vehicle, that’s a very slow way to grow a market.
How does engineering design factor into the equation in terms of composites?
When it comes to larger structural pieces, it requires a design knowledge that takes a different approach to the problem. Metal tends to be relatively soft so its failure is an elastic mode. It behaves very differently compared to its composite counterpart. When composites fail, they explode. So, you’ve got to design differently. I think the reason we’re still seeing a lot of metal on cars is that people think its safe.
How are “green” developments changing the production of automotive manufacturing?
No natural material has the strength of synthetic materials. However, bio-fiber composites are a good step. It’s a good environmental story and we as an industry are improving at getting the right property sets out of it. The challenge is in the economics of it all.