Minnichelli notes that new applications for thermoplastics are being commercialized today to make use of higher temperature materials and higher loadings of fiberglass and carbon fiber reinforcement. “At BASF, for example, we have been working directly with automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers to develop light weight, low cost applications for thermoplastic composites,” he says.

Honda clarity fuel cell

Honda’s Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen electric vehicle features the world’s first hybrid-molded rear bumper beam, made using one-shot molding technology. Photo Credit: Honda Motor Co.

One such example is BASF’s recently commercialized 20 percent carbon fiber-filled polyamide grille opening reinforcement (GOR) for Ford’s 2016 Mustang Shelby GT350. BASF worked with Magna International Inc. to replace a plastic-metal hybrid design with the carbon fiber component. BASF’s Ultramid® polyamide thermoplastic resin, blended with 20 percent short carbon fiber composition, was injection molded in two parts to create a piece that reduced the mass of the GOR by 24 percent (2.5 pounds). And because the new piece proved more aesthetically pleasing than the earlier GOR, it enabled the elimination of a “beauty cover,” which saved an additional 1.9 pounds.

Taking off a pound here and there adds up quickly, no matter how small the switch. It’s why Platte sees fasteners as another potential area strong thermoplastics can replace. “There is potential for polycarbonate composite tape to be used as a local reinforcement in place of alternative materials,” he suggests. “If you can locally reinforce a part with composite tape, it may be possible to thin the overall packaging requirements by decreasing part size and thickness.”

Emerging Structural Applications

With the new motivation to reduce weight, the automotive industry is looking beyond traditional applications – think instrument panels, exterior lighting lenses and reflectors, vehicle air intake manifolds – to more semi-structural applications for thermoplastics.

“Thermoplastic composites offer a lightweight design solution for semi-structural applications, providing structural strength and stiffness at a fraction of the weight of competing materials,” Platte explains. “With their increased flexural and tensile modulus, thermoplastic composites allow manufacturers to produce much thinner components. In short, you can achieve comparable stiffness and strength to develop parts that are lighter and consume less space.”

Balancing light weight with strength is crucial for fabricators. After all, pieces like Mustang’s GOR have an important structural role to play. The GOR connects the upper and lower frame rails, gives shape to the front end and boosts the overall stiffness of the front vehicle body. With the success of this component, BASF is now looking at adding carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastics to other structural components.