Chinese automakers are keen to catch up in plastics use

By Steve Toloken
Staff Reporter / Asia Bureau Chief

Published: December 5, 2012 6:00 am ET

Chinese cars use more metal, making them heavier, less fuel efficient and potentially more polluting, but some Chinese industry officials believe the industry is ready to adopt more plastic technologies.

Related to this story

Topics Automotive, Materials, Suppliers

CANGZHOU, CHINA (Dec. 5, 3:30 p.m. ET) — China’s automobile market may have surpassed the United States in 2009 to become the world’s largest, but when it comes to plastics and cars, the country still has some catching up to do.

The average Chinese economy car uses about 110 pounds of plastic, compared with 286 to 396 pounds per vehicle in mature markets like the United States.

That means Chinese cars use more metal, making them heavier, less fuel efficient and potentially more polluting.

But some foreign and Chinese industry officials believe the domestic car industry is ready to quickly adopt more plastic technologies as part of a broad strategy to be more environmentally friendly.

One concrete step: a group of global plastics suppliers and Chinese car companies, including Chang’an Automobile Group Co. Ltd., Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd. and Beiqi Foton Motor Co. Ltd., announced a technology alliance Nov. 28 aimed at ramping up their use of plastics. The global resin firms include Rhodia SA, DSM NV and Arkema SA.

Check out a video feature on the alliance here.

The alliance was announced at the 6th International Auto Plastics and Innovative Materials Development Forum in Cangzhou, where several Chinese car makers talked about their plans to increase use of plastics and challenges they faced.

The chairman of the International Auto Lightweight Technology Alliance, Chang’an executive Cao Du, said he thinks the Chinese industry will move quickly to the level of plastics used in vehicles in developed markets.

To date, Chinese car makers have been focused on improving quality, but government pressures and new demands from electric vehicles are making weight reduction a much higher priority, said Cao, vice president of the Chang’an Auto Global R&D Center in Chongqing.

Cao is also vice chairman of the group that organized the Cangzhou conference, the Auto Plastics and Innovative Materials Committee of the Shanghai-based Sino-European Union Chemical Manufacturers Association.

An executive with Chinese vehicle maker Beiqi Foton told the conference that engineering plastics are playing a greater role in the company’s designs, although he urged the industry to make them less expensive to get wider use.

“For the past few years we have been paying attention to light-weighting automobiles,” said Yan Gao, deputy director of Foton’s Automotive Engineering Institute. “Engineering plastics is our work direction, to use the plastic parts to replace metals and other alloy parts. The improvement is quite good.”

For example, he said the company has switched its medium and heavy duty truck bumpers from steel to plastic, adopted glass-fiber reinforced plastics in some vehicle components and switched some engine components from metals to plastics.

Consumer attitudes are changing, Yan said. In the past Chinese truck buyers would prefer heavier trucks with lots of steel because there were seen as better for hauling heavy loads, but government promotion of resource conservation has helped customers accept materials that are lighter but still strong, he said.

A speaker from one of China’s largest car companies, Wuhan-based DongFeng Motor Corp., said there is “still very big room for improvement” in use of engineering plastics in vehicles in the country, but said the company is adopting technologies like microcellular foam molding and sees a lot of value from plastics in weight-savings applications.

“In the past we have used foreign innovations,” said Yang Dan, director of automotive materials. “In the future we hope we can make our own innovation and have our own materials and own processes.”

Geely, one of China’s largest privately owned auto makers, is using more plastics in bumpers, front-end modules, windows and other parts, and is working on using plastic and fiber composite materials, said Liu Qiang, director of material engineering at the Geely Automobile Research Institute.

“We have already put these products into our new vehicle designs,” Liu said. “The overall thinking has already formed to integrate lightweight technology.”

Some Chinese firms are working on advanced technology, like Chinese Tier 1 supplier Ningbo Huaxiang, which is developing high-pressure resin transfer molding technology to try to economically mass produce structural car parts with carbon-fiber composites.

“If you speak about [replacing] structural parts, you have to talk about carbon fiber composites,” said Karsten Brast, general manager of Ningbo Huaxiang Automotive Research and Development Co Ltd. in Ningbo and a former executive in European auto parts makers.

Steel accounts for about 60 percent of a German car, but most of that can be replaced by light-weight materials, he said.

But Huaxiang may be something of an exception. Chinese car companies are keen to replace metals with plastics, but are not so quick to take the next step and make existing plastic parts lighter with gas-assisted injection molding and other new technologies, said Tang Qinghua, director of Beijing Chn-top Machinery Co. Ltd., which makes microcellular foaming injection molding systems.

Several speakers suggested that China’s car industry needs a business model with more cost-sharing of research and development to help it innovate, and many speakers said they were interested in much more collaboration across the supply chain.

But research in light-weighting technology can take years to be successful and it’s not realistic for only one segment of the supply chain to bear the R&D risks, said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, vice president of automotive for Lyon, France-based materials supplier Rhodia.

As China’s car industry grows in importance, it will take on a larger role in global development, said Steinmetz, who is also chairman of the conference organizer APIMC.

“Tomorrow you are going to lead the automotive industry, which takes a different way to finance the development,” he asked the conference attendees. “Are you already taking that into view and making sure those projects are co-financed?”

Even if the plastics and auto industry engineers can solve those problems, they still face a larger hurdle that has little to do with plastics — cars have been getting much heavier over the last 30 years as consumers want larger and better-equipped vehicles.

The Volkswagen Golf in 1974 weighed about 1,650 pounds, for example, but today’s Golf models weigh 2,800 pounds and up, Brast said in his presentation.

That’s a trend that needs to reverse, particularly as the heavy batteries needed by electric cars will add even more weight, he said.

 

By use of this code snippet, I agree to the Brightcove Publisher T and C

found at https://accounts.brightcove.com/en/terms-and-conditions/.

—>

This script tag will cause the Brightcove Players defined above it to be created as soon

as the line is read by the browser. If you wish to have the player instantiated only after

the rest of the HTML is processed and the page load is complete, remove the line.

—>


Comments

Chinese automakers are keen to catch up in plastics use

By Steve Toloken
Staff Reporter / Asia Bureau Chief

Published: December 5, 2012 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Westlake adding ethylene capacity in Louisiana

October 23, 2014 9:54 pm ET

Westlake Chemical Corp. will add 250 million pounds of annual ethane-based ethylene capacity as part of a $330 million expansion project in Lake...    More

Image

PolyOne increases quarterly profits despite falling sales

October 23, 2014 4:55 pm ET

North American compounding leader PolyOne Corp. saw its third-quarter profit increase, even as sales fell vs. the year-ago period.    More

Image

Toyoda Gosei's growth strategy places a big focus on North America

October 23, 2014 1:21 pm ET

Sometimes, knowing your weaknesses is just as important as knowing your strengths. And if 2014 is any indication, automotive supplier Toyoda Gosei Co....    More

Image

Total picks new management following CEO's death in crash

October 23, 2014 11:03 am ET

Total SA has picked a new management team to oversee the company in the wake of a plane crash in Moscow that killed its chairman and CEO earlier this ...    More

Image

Report: Private equity companies may seek to buy Bayer MaterialScience

October 23, 2014 10:56 am ET

A number of investment groups are reported to be interested buying Bayer AG's MaterialScience operation, valued at around 10 billion euros ($12.6 bill...    More

Market Reports

Plastics Recycling Trends in North America

This report is a review and analysis of the North American Plastics Recycling Industry, including key trends and statistics based on 2013 performance. We examine market environment factors, regulatory issues, industry challenges, key drivers and emerging trends in post-consumer and post-industrial recycling.

Learn more

Plastics in Mexico - State of the Industry Report

This report analyzes the $20 million dollar plastics industry in Mexico including sales of machinery & equipment, resins and finished products.

Our analysts provide insight on business trends, foreign investment, top end markets and plastics processing activity. The report also provides important data on exports, production, employment and value of plastics products manufactured.

Learn more

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

June 2, 2015 - June 3, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - Chicago 2015

September 16, 2015 - September 18, 2015Plastics Caps & Closures - September 2015

More Events