“I strongly believe that the technology is ready to be widely implemented,” says Pilla. “The science is there, but there needs to be something additional because cost is a major barrier.”

Pilla is a leading expert in composite materials, said Nick Rigas, associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives and executive director of Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).

“The changing landscape of aluminum and steel pricing will certainly have an impact on composite materials,” Rigas said. “Dr. Pilla’s knowledge in this field is extensive and broad. The amount of research funding he has received over the past few years is having a direct impact to the industry. His center for composites manufacturing research will have broad impacts in and out of the state of South Carolina.”

Closing the cost gap is a key component of Pilla’s research. Currently, he is leading a team that is working with an OEM to create a driver’s side front-door assembly out of carbon-fiber-thermoplastic composites. The goal is to reduce the weight by 42.5 percent, helping automakers meet new fuel-efficiency standards going into effect in 2025. The work is part of a $5.81-million grant they received in 2015 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Pilla believes continued investment in R&D is the key to capitalizing on the potential of automotive components. The other major factor, he says, is increased OEM acceptance. For its part, the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) has been working vigorously with its Automotive Composites Alliance to educate automotive OEMs about the benefits of composites. In 2016, the association held a successful technology demonstration event for more than 300 engineers and designers at a major automaker, and will hold a similar event for another OEM this week.