Who better to kick off the world’s premier composites conference, the Composites and Advanced Materials Expo (CAMX) than Dr. J. Gary Smyth, executive director of global research and development at General Motors?

One of today’s hottest topics in auto industry is how to lightweight vehicles for better fuel efficiency. And GM is one of the major automakers at the forefront of this push. Smyth, who says that GM has been using composites in some way, shape or form for nearly 60 years, utilized his keynote address to outline GM’s history with innovative materials, give his insights into the future of composites in the automotive industry and share key lessons GM learned from its early use of composites in the Corvette.

Over the past few years, automakers worldwide have been increasingly relying on composite materials to make vehicles lighter in order to meet ambitious fuel efficiency standards. According to Smyth, these challenges are even greater outside of the United States – China is requiring vehicles to reach 56 MPG by 2020 and Europe has set the mark at 58.5 MPG by 2020.

While the use of lightweight composite materials in large-scale production vehicles is widely accepted now, Smyth said that when GM first introduced fiberglass to the Corvette back in 1953, it caused a major disruption in the automotive market. While “market disruption” may sound like a negative phrase, Smyth believes composite manufacturers should embrace the idea of disruption as a vehicle for marketplace innovation. As the industry innovates, challenges continue, including increased customer expectations for sustainable vehicles with high-tech features, the electrification of the worldwide market and vehicles that offer automated highway driving. Smyth says materials suppliers and others will need to adapt.

“Disruption isn’t bad [if] you’re a part of it,” said Smyth. “Ask yourself what you can do to be a part of the disruption.”

Most recently, GM has used Continental Structural Plastics’ (CSP) TCA Ultra Lite composite body panel for the 2016 model of the Stingray Coupe. According to CSP and GM, the material is able to withstand the E-coat process and passes all OEM paint tests. It also offers higher cost efficiency. For production volumes fewer than 150,000, tooling costs for composites can be as much as 50 to 70 percent less than those for stamping steel or aluminum.

That may be why CSP won the 2015 CAMX Unsurpassed Innovation Award, which recognizes a product or process that will significantly impact composites and advanced materials in the marketplace. Materials such as TCA Ultra Lite set a high standard for what the automotive industry expects from composite materials and will lead to further integration of composites in automotive lightweighting solutions.