DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — Before a lighter car hits the road, automakers have to believe it is possible to make a safe, reliable car with lighter parts.
For the plastics industry, that means going beyond a sales meeting and into the design studio and even beyond the studio into the engineering software used to develop new cars long before the rubber meets the road.
"We need to be able to help our customers with their computer modeling," said Lewis Manring, global technology vice president for DuPont Performance Polymers and Automotive technologies.
Automakers have long used computer modeling to do virtual tests on parts and are comfortable with those results, but by and large the auto industry is made up of mechanical engineers familiar with predictive studies on metal, not the stresses of a long-glass-fiber-reinforced composite or a carbon-fiber part.
Crash tests designed for metal body parts do not translate well to composites, while impact studies for composites used in other industries, like aeronautics, do not use the same statistics — for example, an off-set low speed collision, as the auto industry. Suppliers need to develop reliable tests specifically for automakers that automakers will trust.
So, to help DuPont Co. and its partner ElringKlinger AG land a contract for the oil pan on a commercial truck, Manring said, the company developed a computer model predicting how the pan would withstand a standard impact test for an oil pan when it was hit by a small pellet. Then the suppliers also did the physical test for the part with DuPont's Zytel polyamide.
The customer was able to observe the computer prediction and the actual test side-by-side — and saw that they matched. Confident that they could trust the model during continued development, the company signed on for the material switch.
"Work on modeling will help us with development," Manring said in a pre-K webcast.
In North America, new U.S. fuel economy standards are prompting carmakers to shift to lighter parts, while stricter carbon-dioxide emission rules in Europe are also opening new opportunities.
However, plastics firms must look beyond merely stepping into the same role that aluminum or steel has played.
"There's work we can do now that will take us through the next five or 10 years with existing technologies, but we're looking at 2020 and 2028 and beyond and where we can take it even further," said Mike Day, automotive development director for North America at DuPont Performance Polymers "We need new materials and new applications — more than just a substitution type of philosophy."
Oil pans are an expected growth area for plastics, but following quickly behind that are parts for transmissions and integrated charge air coolers for turbocharged engines.
The earlier plastics suppliers begin working on future parts, the better, Day said. Those companies can begin to influence future business by showing potential beyond what the automaker might have originally considered.
Ford Motor Co. was originally seeking a way to improve an engine's sound performance using turbo boosting technology Ford calls EcoBoost. The solution combined an injection molded resonator, inserted inside a blow molded duct using technology first created for fuel tanks.