A look into 2014 and how automotive OEMs are adopting composites to create light weighting solutions.

Fresh off the heels of this year’s North American International Automotive Show in Detroit, where automakers have previewed their latest and greatest models, features and technologies, it is clear the composites industry continues to make strides. But where exactly does the industry stand and what will it take to get to the next level of adoption, especially among the main automotive manufacturers?

Taking Inventory

Research and innovation within major automotive manufacturers around the globe are largely driven by two primary forces – meeting the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards of 36.6 mpg by 2017 and 54.5 mpg by 2025 as well as CO2 emissions standards in Europe.

To meet the demand for fuel economy, automotive manufacturers are turning to suppliers to help them shed weight; and this is where composites are gaining a foothold. OEMs need to make big changes to their vehicle lineups during the next decade or so to achieve these more stringent standards, giving them roughly two design cycles (already reduced down from nine years to seven years) to adopt these changes.

Meanwhile, the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers reports that approximately 63 million passenger vehicles and 21 million commercial vehicles were produced in 2012. (Last year’s figures were unavailable at the time of this publication.) With a large uptick of sales in countries such as China – which accounts for nearly 20 percent of total production and demands – that number will continue to increase. This means not only do manufacturers need to create lighter cars to meet government standards, but they also have to build more of them, making production times and costs key.

There are groups, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that are trying to create more cost-efficient carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) with similar performance with a ticket price of $5 to $7 per pound, allowing for more widespread use. Others are focused on improving processes: Plasan Carbon Composites, Wixom, Mich., created a new, faster process for large exterior body panels, such as doors, fenders, hoods and roofs. It shaves an impressive 73 minutes off process time, down from 90 minutes to 17.

Prodrive Composites, based in the United Kingdom, developed a new process where fixings can be incorporated into injection-molding plastic parts on the back of CFRP components. “One of the challenges of using CRFP panels and trims is the provision of fastenings for their attachment,” says Dominic Cartwright, managing director of Prodrive Composites. “Conventional solutions involve creating a complex carbon shape to carry the fittings, which adds significant cost to the manufacturing process. After a year of R&D, we’ve created a process that gives the same superb finish, but at a fraction of the cost and with greater mechanical strength.”