Two weeks ago, representatives from a wide range of manufacturing companies and material suppliers went to Detroit for the sixth annual Global Automotive Lightweighting Materials (GALM) Conference in Detroit. GALM is seen as the premier event to get a broad perspective on the spectrum of lightweighting materials applied to automotive applications. According to Terry O’Donovan, vice president of marketing and sales at Core Molding Technologies and the chairman of ACMA’s Automotive Composites Alliance, there were plenty of takeaways for the composites industry.

Today, composites are being marketed to OEMs as a lightweight alternative to aluminum and steel. O’Donovan says, however, that OEMs have a complicated relationship with lightweighting.

“On one hand, there’s continuous improvement – OEMs know that little bits of weight savings here and there add up to bigger weight savings,” he explains. “So they don’t want to discard the value of saving weight. At the same time, mass reductions are only meaningful if they result in driving a vehicle to a lower weight class. This makes minor changes that reduce weight difficult to justify. Weight reduction is, however, still an objective.”

O’Donovan says composites manufacturers and suppliers should also be reminded that lightweighting is not the end-all, be-all solution for fuel efficiency. OEMs are also focused on improving powertrain technology and aerodynamics. O’Donovan notes that this presents an opportunity for composites manufacturers to develop unique part shapes more efficiently than competing materials.

Another key point O’Donovan says is the state of tooling infrastructure. A lot of OEMs, he says, already have a lot invested in their own metalwork – they don’t have operations just for composites. Alternative materials need to “fit the helmet” of an OEM going under a platform redesign.

“It is not practical to replace all of that simply to get weight savings,” O’Donovan explains. “It’s not realistic to think that the composite industry can introduce a new application in the middle of a model cycle.”

Ultimately, while it is not new to anyone, it bears repeating that cost is still the biggest issue the composites industry faces. Carbon fiber is roughly 6-10 times the cost of steel, whereas aluminum is only 3-4 times the cost of steel. In 2013, composites began what O’Donovan says is a “hype cycle” – a flurry of new applications that helped garner interest in composites, but eventually plateaued once costs added up.

He says BMW’s i Series is a perfect example of this. The i3 was a game changer for composites. Back in 2013, projections estimated that by 2020, 60 percent of vehicles would have 20 percent composites usage. That probably won’t happen, considering BMW moved to a lower level of composites usage for its i5 and i7 models.