As the automotive product landscape continues to change in multiple directions, business cases and market entry points for materials also change. Depending on the automaker, engineering team and even the target market consumer base, environmental implications of a product’s life cycle are a metric with a long history of frameworks and reporting. Niche brands and vehicle nameplates have grown anew through a rigorous focus upon the business details, which impact recycling, landfill waste, energy efficiency and even raw material sourcing.
While the current megatrend is “it’s cool to be green,” the details of business conduct at an engineering level are changing from single metrics of performance to holistic process evaluation. Finding the right customer for your material in this market is as much a matchmaker effort of relationships as it is a collaboration of establishing the right overall impact. As a society and as an industry, we are all being challenged to cross train and evaluate decisions beyond math and science, venturing into a subjective set of critical thinking.
Lightweighting of automotive components is a marathon effort in which the composites industry is no stranger to the diverse applications and operating conditions of components. Interior components may represent the largest collection of composites for current automotive products. However, as an industry, we must remember and look forward simultaneously – remember that many interior components were once made of different materials, while looking forward to the next applications emerging in the industry.
As energy storage devices are changing in market diversity and materials, the composites industry already shows advancements and benefits. There is opportunity for growth in the use of polymer-based materials for both internal combustion and battery electric vehicles, as is evidenced by recent applications for FRP fuel tanks and lines and battery pack lids made from sheet molding composite (SMC). But with that opportunity comes challenges, too.
In some cases, composite construction provides an opportunity for customer excitement. In other cases, the performance of composites enables entire business cases, such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and hydrogen storage tanks.
While some regions have embraced CNG vehicles because the carbon offset and cost performance make them economically viable, the technology does not gain a majority share in our automotive sector outlook. In India and Oklahoma, for instance, CNG pumping stations are convenient enough to normalize the fuel decision, but the market has largely stagnated for this fuel. The simplest rationale comes from the costs to produce the fuel system components. Tanks expire before the useful life cycle of the vehicle, especially when in a light or medium duty commercial application, which leads to vehicles being scrapped instead of maintained.
However, a high-level viewpoint of economics provides a blunt rationale for dampening of wound tanks: If a technology and manufacturing method does not have a home within higher price-point markets, such as aerospace or racing cars, it will not reach mass adoption without significant improvements involving disruptive technologies. Manufacturing development is expensive and largely subsidized by such high-end markets.
This is largely a statement of the nature of automotive as a nexus point of technologies where industries overlap, market timing is critical and passenger cars are both the progenitors and adopters of technology trends. Touchscreen displays and Phillips-head screws are ubiquitous in devices sold today, and both had roots in the automotive industry long before other industries adopted these solutions. Contrary to those two examples, technology such as carbon fiber and turbochargers largely evolved outside of automotive before adoption within. Each one of these product examples has a particular pathway to economic growth and a particular foothold within the marketplace.
Aligning Materials to Needs
As we look to composites usage in automotive body structures, the similarities to other technologies reveal a landscape whereby the competition of materials can determine where best to employ a solution. Disruption occurs when you break the boundaries of these market competition conditions. Cost advantages, material performance or even formability can all take a product to the next level of opportunity, but alignment of materials to functional engineering needs is key.