OEMs are attracted by the potential for short production cycles, thereby enabling lightweight solutions for mass production.

There was little argument in 2012 when the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that by 2025 the U.S. auto fleet must average 54.5 miles per gallon. President Obama called the new fuel standards “the single most important step we’ve ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” To achieve this stringent new requirement, automotive industry researchers knew that they’d have to turn to materials that could lighten vehicular weight without reducing its strength. CFRP is an obvious choice.

In July 2016, Just Auto released a light vehicle materials market forecast that stated that the use of CFRP materials is now growing rapidly beyond the production of high-end, low-volume vehicles and heading into mainstream production. While manufacturers like Lamborghini have led in composite research (its Advanced Composites Structure Laboratory has developed CFRP solutions for the luxury carmaker since 2007), automakers like Ford are now focusing on mass production. For example, in 2015 the carmaker began mass producing carbon fiber wheels for its Mustang Shelby® GT350R.

Joe Laux, director of advanced engineering for automotive component manufacturer Magna Exteriors, predicted in the Just Auto report that automotive applications of carbon fiber will only increase as the 2025 deadline approaches since “there is not a material that we know of that competes on a strength versus weight basis. There are many materials that are more affordable, but not on a comparable mass savings opportunity.”

While the weight and strength benefits favorably place CFRP as a material of interest to the automotive industry, expanding its use has not been without challenges. Cost is certainly an issue. Speed of production is another significant hurdle. As a result, composite suppliers continue to explore processes and manufacturing solutions that can better meet automakers’ needs. One such shift is a growing use of thermoplastic over thermoset composites in a variety of new applications.

Production Benefits

While thermoset composites have features that make them attractive to the automotive industry – including ease of manufacturing at a relatively low material cost – thermoplastics offer their own difficult-to-ignore benefits. Chief among these are the significant increases in production speed over thermosets.

“Thermoplastic parts can be processed at much higher rates of speed than thermosets,” explains Eric Wollan, vice president of technology and business development for PlastiComp Inc. in Winona, Minn. “Typical cycle times for thermoplastic parts are two minutes or less.”