And as Platte points out, new processes require new ways of thinking. “A [big] challenge is educating engineers about the behavior of thermoplastic composites so they can adequately design for newer applications using these materials,” he says.
In addition, because early automotive applications of CFRP were designed for low-volume applications, speed of production wasn’t as pressing an issue as it is for high-volume mass production. This is an area where research continues to evolve.
“In order to use continuous fiber materials for more automotive applications, we are working with industry partners – for example, through the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation – to improve the processing technologies needed to accurately create multilayer continuous fiber inserts at automotive cycle time speeds,” Minnichelli says.
On a practical level, the higher cost of the processes is another hurdle to wider use of thermoplastics in vehicles. “The challenge we face on the supplier side is demonstrating the performance value relative to cost for applications currently using alternative technologies. This must be done in close collaboration with qualified Tier 1 suppliers,” Platte says.
Wollan adds, “Costs of materials, especially carbon fiber reinforced materials, need to decrease significantly before widespread adoption will occur.”
However, that’s a hurdle that will likely be breached as supply grows to meet demand. “As demand grows, price points of the materials will continue to come down to a more palatable level,” Wollan predicts. “There is also the potential for hybrid thermoplastics to help bridge the price and performance gap between carbon composites and glass composites.”
And demand is expected to grow. Grand View Research’s April 2016 Market Analysis echoes numerous other reports in its predictions that global demand for CFRP will significantly increase in the next decade. The market analysis adds that thermoplastic CFRP is expected to gain popularity due to its superior properties compared to thermoset CFRP. Because the latter requires several minutes or hours to mold the desired shape, it’s not currently suitable as a material for mass-produced automobiles.
This demand should also lead to an explosion in research, new technology and new applications for thermoplastic composites in tomorrow’s vehicles.
As fabricators in the automotive industry explore possibilities for using composite materials in new applications, IACMI-The Composites Institute’s Vehicles Technology Area is seeking to solve some of the biggest hurdles in expanding this use.
Larry Drzal, director of IACMI’s Vehicle Technology Area and of the Composite Materials and Structures Center at Michigan State University (MSU), points out that carbon fiber offers undeniable lightweighting benefits, but it won’t be more widely used unless costs come down. “The problem has been that carbon fiber typically is only available in quantities to satisfy the needs of the aerospace market, and so is very expensive – on the order of $20 per pound or so,” he says. “Being able to use that in a composite in a vehicle is problematic from an economic viewpoint.”