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Sabic: Plastic body panels are coming back

By: Lindsay Chappell

August 9, 2012

TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. (Aug. 9, 1:05 p.m. ET) — The future looks brighter for plastic exterior vehicle parts as automakers intensify their search for weight-saving ideas.

After suffering a blow nearly a decade ago, when General Motors abandoned its pioneering use of polymer body panels on its Saturn lineup, plastics are poised for a comeback, says Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran global automotive marketing director for Sabic Innovative Plastics.

The two main reasons:

1. Weight reduction is a more urgent priority for automakers in 2012, and plastics offer as much as a 50 percent weight savings over comparable parts made of steel.

2. Suppliers have made manufacturing with plastic parts easier and less expensive.

Umamaheswaran says Sabic is getting orders to supply new programs. Most of them are in Europe and Asia, he acknowledges, including fenders and other exterior pieces on recent vehicles from Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, Mitsubishi and Chery.

And makers of a number of U.S.-market vehicles also are considering Sabic plastic exterior parts for upcoming models, he says.

“American car manufacturers went through that phase one of plastic body panels, and we believe that a phase two is imminent and coming,” Umamaheswaran says.

The 2002 Saturn Vue had plastic body panels, but General Motors was dissatisfied with the material’s exterior appearance. The panels needed room to expand when hot, resulting in wider than normal gaps in the body.

GM, which struggled a decade ago to rekindle sales of its plastic-clad Saturn vehicles, concluded that plastic didn’t deliver the quality it wanted for exterior appearances. The panels needed room to expand when hot, resulting in wider than normal gaps in the body.

“The industry was still in its infancy when GM was making plastic body panels,” Umamaheswaran says. “We’ve made some big strides in the chemistry of plastics in the past decade, and the industry is starting to reconsider us.”

Interior and exterior plastics and composites combined account for less than one-tenth of the average light vehicle’s body weight, according to the American Chemistry Council, an association that represents the key automotive plastics suppliers.

One key innovation allows for easier painting of plastic parts today. Electrostatic painting, which directs paint with an electrical charge, didn’t work on plastic parts, and factories needed two separate paint lines to handle the material.

Plastic suppliers have now enhanced the raw material by mixing in a conductive filler that makes the plastic behave like a steel part for painting.

“We’ve made the material much friendlier for the production process, and the industry is responding to this around the world,” he says. “There are some significant projects coming up.”