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Official: China's car industry needs cooperation, government support to boost use of lightweight plastics

By: Rebecca Kanthor
PLASTICS NEWS CORRESPONDENT

November 25, 2013

SHANGHAI — The head of a technology alliance focused on making cars in China lighter by replacing metals with plastics is calling on more cooperation between Chinese car companies and more support from the government to fully develop the market.

Cao Du, the executive chairman of the International Green Auto Lightweight Technology Alliance and a research executive at Chinese car maker Chang'An, told a recent industry forum that Chinese companies need to put more pressure on the government and work more closely with each other to share knowledge.

"Lighter cars are the key strategy for China and its automobile industry," he said in a speech to delegates at the International Auto Lightweight Plastics and Innovative Materials Development Forum, held Nov. 19-21 in Shanghai.

But Cao said the government favors the aeronautics industry over the car industry for composites materials research, and he also faulted industry for not sharing enough resources.

"The government is not conscious of the important role that composite plays in making lighter cars," Cao said in an interview with Plastics News.

He added that government-financed institutes do not provide detailed planning and investment in this area.

The technology alliance Cao heads includes global resin suppliers like Rhodia SA, DSM NV and Arkema, along with large Chinese car makers like Chang'An and Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd. The alliance is organized under the Shanghai-based Sino-European Union Chemical Manufacturers Association, which provides administrative support.

Cao is also vice president of Chang'an Automobile Group Co. Ltd.'s Global R&D Center in Chongqing, China.

At the forum, Cao called for original equipment manufacturers to encourage lightweighting and suggested they write a white paper on the subject.

By the end of the forum, he told Plastics News that informal talks between several of the companies resulted in an agreement to form a committee of OEM car makers to work together and share knowledge on lightweighting projects.

Four state-owned car makers plan to put together a proposal to the government to support the formation of this committee within the next few weeks, he said.

Cao said that in the OEM discussions, the group realized, for example, that almost all the participants were working on carbon fiber reinforced plastic hoods.

"We discussed why couldn't we share the technical difficulties and share the workload or share the achievements," Cao said. "That would be better. We haven't figured out the best way but what we discussed is based on the North American experience."

The new committee will work together and make future 5 year plans and assign workloads to different OEMs, he said.

Cao called the agreement a sign that the alliance is seeing greater participation by Chinese OEMs. He said in the past few Chinese OEMs made sample components making more use of plastics.

"This year, however, is different," he said. "Yet to make things happen we must [have] a comprehensive chain of industry. The good news is that some general manufacturers are working with… suppliers and have made some achievements."

He said that while the gap in the use of plastics between Chinese and foreign-made cars remains, with many Chinese cars using 30-40 kg (66-88 lbs.) less plastic per car, it is an optimistic time for the IALTA alliance.

"Clearly, we are lagging behind. Yet I think it is relatively easy for us to bridge gap and this is what we should do now because OEMs are located in China and the materials they use are also from China," he said. "We should replace steel with plastic composites that have been ignored by us in past production."

"Lightweight cars are inevitable," he said. "We must take this road or we will be left behind."

China has led the world in car production for the last five years, and should seize the opportunity to move forward in the technology, he said.

"Not only should the government support lightweight cars but also the whole industry should form a vigorous chain of industry," he said. "When we act as one, we will have greater say and in turn win the government's support."