DUSSELDORF, GERMANY - Industry analysts believe further gains in substituting plastics for other materials used by the auto-motive industry are going to be hard as nails to achieve. ``As in many other major market applications, the plastics industry has triumphed in numerous automotive uses,'' James Morton, senior associate of Charles River Associates Inc. of Boston said at the Autoplas '95 conference in Dusseldorf.
``The size and speed of these materials' achievements have been phenomenal, so much so that many in the industry now have a sense of invincibility, one that has led them to expect plastics' huge success at substituting for other competing materials to continue.
``This does not appear to be the case,'' Morton added.
Morton is projecting an annual growth rate of 1.2 percent for plastics in the automotive industry for the next 10 years.
Materials such as magnesium, titanium and aluminum, and new fabrication techniques for steel are providing plastics with new, stronger competition for applications in the auto industry, clicking up the criteria for substitution materials, he said.
``To be selected for a mass-produced vehicle, any alternative material needs either to solve an in-service failure problem, or offer advantages in the total cost, weight, quality and reliability of the overall auto system while maintaining or even improving the environmental protection, fuel economy and safety aspects of the vehicle's design,'' Morton said.
``Alternatives ... may not offer enough advantages to warrant a switch,'' said Morton.
Morton believes it is clear that the easiest applications in material replacement were completed years ago. Then, in the 1980s, plastic resin suppliers developed new products that placed plastic resins in more difficult applications, such as under-the-hood applications where high temperatures and corrosive conditions make performance difficult.
However, even with those new developments, the growth of plastics in the automotive industry was not as dramatic as the 6 percent per year growth in the 1970s, and the usage curve was flattening to just over 1 percent per year, Morton said.
That flattening was a result of the stronger competition from steel, aluminum and magnesium.
Today, plastics can expect to make incremental gains in such areas as automotive interiors, where plastic resins already are the dominant material, and under the hood, where their applications are limited and where aluminum will remain a strong competitor, Morton said.
Further, plastic resin makers are targeting applications - and are hoping for growing market share in exterior applications.
``Exterior body panels represent the largest tonnage opportunity for plastics,'' Morton said.
``However this component will be the most challenging, and will require the longest time for plastics to achieve success. In the short run, the growth prospects are marginal at best. A near-term program of intensive use of plastic exterior body panels for large volume production ... will not occur,'' Morton said.
Automakers' existing infrastructure dedicated to steel processing and the continued concerns over the recyclability of plastic automotive components pose the greatest hurdle to such a change to plastics, Morton said.