logo

Supplier collaboration drives auto innovations

By: Lauren Hilgers

April 27, 2012

SHANGHAI (April 27, 12:10 p.m. ET) — China’s automotive market is dominated by big domestic players. International brands, more often than not, partner with local companies to gain easier access to the market. Plastics companies interested in the market must also work with local OEMs.

At the China Plastics in Automotive conference, Weijian Sun from Chinese automaker Chery Automobile Co. Ltd., Woong Chung from DuPont Co.’s Performance Polymers business and Dan Bishop with Herleen, Netherlands-based DSM NV gave their perspectives on collaboration and the needs of China’s automakers.

“Suppliers start at the product development stage,” said Sun, chief engineer of vehicle engineering and testing for Wuhu-based Chery and director of its Material Engineering division. “We have to consider costs, look at available material supply and we hope that we can work together.”  

Suppliers should be prepared to offer their own ideas on possible applications and solutions to problems that automakers might run into, Sun said at the April 17 conference in Shanghai.

“We want to talk about cars using plastic,” he said. “The application of environmentally friendly materials is increasing. We are coming up with new needs regarding the property of materials.” He pointed out that in places like Japan, bio-based polylactic acid resin already is being applied to vehicles, while China is still in research and development stages.

However, he said, China’s government is putting emphasis on the development of electronic vehicles, creating a need for lighter materials in automobiles. “Electronic cars have attracted attention globally, so we need to work with world-class institutions to make the best possible product,” Sun said.

As an example, he pointed to a collaborative research center in China that Chery has set up with Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont. “In our country we’ve just started our efforts — many local institutions don’t have substantial experience in terms of research and development.” Such collaborations can help automakers experiment with new materials early in the development process and give material suppliers a better idea of what carmakers are looking for.

DuPont Performance Polymers’ Woong Chung said knowing your customers’ needs is a key component to success. To fulfill the needs of original equipment manufacturers, materials suppliers need to expand their areas of expertise, said Chung, who is global technical services manager. “More than 50 percent of a project’s success comes from material selection,” he said.

He said suppliers should be able to suggest the right material for an application, offer processing know-how, and be available for troubleshooting if a customer runs into problems. They also must keep in mind the cost to the OEM.

“Most of the material suppliers already have the in-house capability for such an automotive part,” Chung said. “So we can support the molding technology and minimize the possibility of a product failing.”

Particularly as China’s automakers become more environmentally aware, materials suppliers also must be clear on environmental benefits of the products it offers, said Dan Bishop, marketing director for DSM Engineering Plastics Asia Pacific. Plastic materials can improve the weight of a vehicle, help reduce fuel consumption and offer new design possibilities.

“One of the older applications that we have in the powertrain is in the timing system,” Bishop said. “We’ve found over the years that this material offers better friction properties at elevated levels.” Less friction, he explained, means less fuel consumption. “We believe friction is one of the overlooked areas where we can reduce the consumption of the vehicle.”

Plastics can also be used in air-intake manifolds, actuators and replacing metal in a vehicle’s chassis and structural parts. “Around the world, automakers are moving into a new trend of optimizing their air-intake manifolds for lowest possible weight and sometimes adjusting to higher temperatures as engines get smaller and smaller,” said Bishop.

Other new applications for plastics include canisters for air-bag systems and low-emission fuel vapor canisters.