Christian Obermann, general manager of Bond Laminates GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of German specialty chemicals company LANXESS AG, points to these far shorter production cycles – without the need for any post-production processes – as the chief benefit leading the switch. LANXESS experts say thermoplastic solutions are by far better for high-volume mass production and enabling lightweight solutions.

This combination of speed and weight reduction is key, and the reason that automakers like Honda are working with thermoplastic suppliers who can rapidly produce components. Honda is using LANXESS’ Tepex® continuous fiber-reinforced, high-performance thermoplastic composite, made by its Bond-Laminates subsidiary, in combination with its Durethan® high-performance thermoplastic polymer to manufacture the hybrid-molded rear bumper beam for Honda’s 2016 Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle using a one-shot molding process. According to Obermann, this not only allows the production of parts that are about 50 percent lighter than those made from metal, but also results in a significantly streamlined production process for the automotive industry.

Improved cycle times are crucial for meeting the fast pace of automotive production, but thermoplastics possess additional benefits as well. Mark Minnichelli, director of technical development for BASF Performance Materials and site leader at the company’s Budd Lake, N.J., location, points to several additional advantages of thermoplastic composites compared to thermoset materials:

  • They are inherently recyclable, so there is no additional waste traveling to the landfill.
  • There are no shelf life issues or need to refrigerate materials.
  • They are inherently more ductile and less brittle than thermoset components.
  • They give manufacturers the ability to mold in features and mold to net shape in many instances, eliminating the need for secondary operations.

And there’s one more characteristic that offers promise: aesthetics.

“Today’s materials offer high-quality surface aesthetics, potentially Class A,” says Paul Platte, senior marketing manager, Automotive and Transportation, North America, in Polycarbonates Industrial Marketing, for Pittsburgh-based Covestro LLC. “Applications that are not seen as viable today will become more viable in the future because of the improved aesthetics that polycarbonate composites offer.” Examples include Class A body panels, seat backs and exterior horizontal panels.

Lightening the Load

With the rapid approach of the EPA’s 2025 fuel efficiency deadline, automotive researchers are increasingly focusing on thermoplastic composites. “The adoption of carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastics will begin to increase because of the pure need for light weighting,” Wollan predicts.

Minnichelli agrees. “There continue to be significant weight-reduction drivers affecting the automotive industry, which will fuel interest in replacing heavier materials in today’s vehicles with lightweight thermoplastic composites. A growing number of structural components currently made of steel, and even aluminum or magnesium, will be opportunities for future growth of thermoplastic composites,” he says.