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Plastics continue to point the way forward for auto industry

By: Kerri Jansen

April 9, 2014

More demonstration of the capabilities of plastics and polymer composites is needed to expand the use of those materials in automotive applications, according to a new roadmap from the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division.

ACC’s plastics division created its first roadmap in 2001, and last updated it in 2009. The latest version, “Plastics and Polymer Composites Technology Roadmap for Automotive Markets,” is intended to set a framework for increasing the penetration of plastics and polymer composites in the automotive industry, with an emphasis on lightweighting and meeting fuel efficiency standards.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. EPA require automakers to achieve fuel efficiency of more than 50 mpg by 2025. Automakers are increasingly looking to plastics as a lightweight alternative to traditional materials; carbon fiber-reinforced composites, for example, are 50 percent lighter than conventional steel and 30 percent lighter than aluminum, according to the roadmap.

“There’s so much pressure put on the OEMs at this point to be able to meet the new CAFE standards … that the value that plastics and composites are able to bring with their strength-to weight ratio, stiffness-to-weight ratio, becomes even more important,” said Matthew Marks, chair of the ACC’s automotive team, told Plastics News in a phone interview.

Marks said he’s seen the use of plastics in automotive applications double during his 20 years in the industry, but challenges remain for plastics to fully realize their potential.

“The automotive infrastructure and workforce have evolved over the past 100 years to accommodate metals, creating barriers to plastics and polymer composites,” the roadmap reads.

The roadmap calls for more high-profile demonstrations of the capabilities of plastics and polymer composites throughout the supply chain, as well as actions to enhance the system of information around plastics.

“The important piece is to get industry-wide demonstrations, applications and projects identified and working collaboratively with the supply chain, whether it’s tiers or OEMs, showing what the engineers are capable of supplying with the lightweight materials with plastics and composites,” Marks said. “Another area is in the area of material selection and part design. By showing the engineers what you can do with the lightweight materials, with the low specific gravity, high strength, high stiffness that’s capable with some of the polymer composite materials, they’re able to substitute what you would consider traditional materials by making them lighter weight.”

In addition to demonstrations and workforce development, Marks pointed out a need to enhance the knowledge base around plastics through more educational programs for plastics and polymers at the university level.

The roadmap also identifies a challenge in the perception that plastics and polymer composites are not a “premium” material. Developing better tools to model plastic and polymer composite designs will help change this perception, as well as reducing development time to make plastics and polymer composites a more attractive alternative, Marks said.

Though issues continue to be addressed in multi-materials joining and assembly, difficulty in end-of-life recycling and the high cost of some materials, plastics and polymer composites offer a big advantage in the ability to consolidate parts for dramatic weight savings, Marks said.

For example, a single injection-molded plastic part was developed for the front end module of the Ford Taurus, representing a mass reduction of 46 percent, Marks said.

“The ability for parts to be integrated through the injection molding process allows those extra pieces to be eliminated from the manufacturing process,” Marks said. “So it takes out the cost, it takes out the mass associated with that.”

ACC’s full roadmap is available at their automotive plastics website, plastics-car.com.