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Global standards raise stakes

By: Rhoda Miel

August 21, 2012

TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. (Aug. 21, 10:15 a.m. ET)  — CAFE is just part of the future global auto story.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard in the U.S. is going up, but legislation in both Europe and China is pushing automakers just as hard.

“Clearly, we’re looking at a global auto market with 50 miles per gallon everywhere by the 2020 time frame,” said Gary Smyth, executive director of the North American science labs and global research and development for General Motors Co.

To get there, automakers will use engine-boosting technology on traditional gasoline internal combustion engines, invest in diesel engines, add more electric and hybrid vehicle capacity, create all-electric vehicles and — in 2015 — begin selling fuel-cell vehicles. And suppliers must step up production for parts across all of those powertrains.

“We’ve got to look at new materials, at new processes, at new ways of manufacturing all of these,” Smyth said during the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.

Four days of sessions on materials, sales, design and production, from Aug. 6-9, all focused on how automakers are reshaping their capabilities to meet future demands.

“The supply chain has to be in place,” said Marianne Morgan, automotive industry manager for BASF Corp. engineering plastics.

For some engine technology, that means that research and production already in place in Europe is transferring to North America — such as performance-boosting technology that allows smaller engines to match performance of larger engines, but while using less fuel.

Other engine production is just being built. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. will open its $1.7 billion addition in Smyrna, Tenn., this year to produce lithium-ion batteries and its all-electric Leaf car.

Once at full capacity, the site will be able to produce 200,000 battery packs annually, said Carla Bailo, senior vice president of research and development for Nissan Americas.

Tokyo-based Nissan also has development teams in Farmington Hills, Mich., looking at the next generation of electric vehicles and even fuel cells.

“We need more chemical engineers to help us understand all the chemical aspects of what we’re dealing with,” Bailo said.

Toyota Motor Co. is going one step further and will begin sales of its fuel-cell-powered sedan in 2015 in limited markets. Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota also is wrapping up plans for a hydrogen fueling-station infrastructure that will be needed for that fuel-cell fleet, said Justin Ward, powertrain program manager for advanced-technology vehicles at the Toyota technical center.

For plastics suppliers, this all means new possibilities under the hood and in key power components.

Florham Park, N.J.-based BASF, for instance, produces the Ultramid-brand nylon used for the 135 individual lithium-ion battery frames inside GM’s Chevrolet Volt. Morgan noted that the resin supplier is involved in other future programs, and is looking at ways to expand plastics’ use in battery systems.

“There are some things you place your bets on,” she said. “We’re heavily invested in battery technology.”

Smyth said Detroit-based General Motors is investing in extensive research on new battery technology, including separators — the thermoplastic film at the heart of every lithium-ion cell. It also is pushing toward a future fuel-cell vehicle.

“We’re now at a point where we need to take this technology forward and drive cost down and develop the infrastructure,” he said.

In addition to their use inside fuel-cell battery systems, composite tanks typically are used in fuel-cell vehicles to store on-board hydrogen used as the fuel.

Nylon also is benefiting from improvements to internal combustion engines already on the market. A typical enhanced engine has “hot” and “cool” side chargers that require tight tolerances and high temperatures that fit right into engineering resins’ capabilities, Morgan pointed out.

Ford Motor Co. already uses DuPont resins in the EcoBoost engine for its F-150 pickup trucks for chargers, ducts and other parts.

Later this year, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford will expand its EcoBoost offerings to a three-cylinder-engine Focus that can perform as well as a four-cylinder engine while using 20 percent less fuel, according to the company. By 2014, Ford expects that 90 percent of its nameplates will offer an EcoBoost engine option, said Joe Bakaj, vice president of powertrain engineering.

At the same time they are adding new systems, those companies need to keep weight down.

Volkswagen AG of Wolfsburg, Germany, is using a plastic oil pan in its 2-liter, EA888 engines, part of an effort to reduce engine weight by 30 percent, said Oliver Schmidt, general manager of the engineering and environmental office of Volkswagen Group of America.

Morgan said BASF expects valve covers — currently made with plastic in 80-85 percent of engines sold in Europe — will see more sales in North America, where they now make up 30-35 percent of the market.

But with that 2020 deadline approaching, suppliers need to get their materials and production capabilities on line quickly.

“If you don’t already have [material] validated for an existing engine, it’s going to be hard [for it] to be adapted into a new engine,” Morgan said.