Composites are slowly, but surely making their way from high-performance to everyday automobiles.
Composites have become vital to our modern life. Apple is researching composite applications for its next generation of iOS devices, and the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner contains 35 tons of composites. Composites materials can be found in a slew of bike frames, tennis rackets, golf clubs, wind turbines, racing yachts and more. Yet when it comes to the automotive world, it’s been a slow road. Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites arrived on the automotive racing scene more than 40 years ago and were subsequently adopted by high-performance, low-production (and high-cost) vehicles.
Today, not only are composites used in Formula 1 racing and NASCAR circuits, but they have begun to trickle down from the likes of the Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Porches of the luxury automotive world and into the affordable mass market. And with 16 million passenger cars on the road in the U.S. alone, there is vast potential for composites given the need for lightweighting as OEMs begin to comply with the looming 54.5-mpg CAFÉ standards for 2025. Yet this trickledown process has been painfully slow. So what is the hold up, and what can be expected for the future of composites in automotive applications?
Supply, Price, Speed
Even though composites are a lighter material and have an impressive strength- to-weight ratio, OEMs are struggling to adopt composites for a variety of reasons ranging from price per pound, insufficient available product and compatibility with the existing system.
In a recent study by Frost & Sullivan Supply Chain Analysis of the Automotive Carbon Fiber Composites Market, senior research analyst Sandeepan Mondal states, “The high costs of carbon fiber and existing production techniques results in higher manufacturing cycle times, which leads to low-volume production.” To become a more viable solution within the general automobile industry, the composites industry has to increase its production time.
“OEMs don’t care as much about fiber or preform; they just want an automobile to be at a certain weight, the manufacturing process and speed to be at an acceptable level and a competitive price point. What the composites industry comes up with to solve those problems will be the challenge,” says John Busel, Director of ACMA’s Composites Growth Initiative. “For CFRP to revolutionize automotive production, it needs to get into the main structure of the car, it needs to be mass produced at a certain price point and it needs to fit into the current assembly line and timeframe, which means it has to take two minutes to make a part not five to manufacture parts.” CFRP used to cost $20 per pound, now it’s at around $8 per pound, but that’s in comparison to $1 a pound for glass fiber, 50 cents for steel and $2 for aluminum.