TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — While plastics will continue to rule automotive interiors well into the next decade, that reign could be a volatile one, according to a new research study from the University of Michigan.
The university's study, compiled from a panel of top automotive executives, suggests that plastics suppliers might suffer some slings and arrows in the years ahead as they grapple with the following issues:
Recycling. While it is mainly given lip service today, stricter regulations suddenly could thrust the topic into the limelight.
Weight savings. Plastics wear a gold star in this area. But automakers expect new vehicles to be both lightweight and low cost, which could require major engineering and material overhauls.
Material usage changes. For interior parts such as instrument panel systems, door trim panels and headliners, several materials are duking it out.
Plastics infighting. Carmakers increasingly will want common materials used over an entire interior system to save production costs. And cost issues are not going away. Expect some major battles among material suppliers for supremacy.
The results were assembled by the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation in Ann Arbor. The findings were released Aug. 5 during the school's annual Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
For the study, researchers assembled an honor roll of corporate dignitaries from car companies and their suppliers. Of the 59 panel members who completed the survey, 39 percent are key executives and 24 percent are directors.
Other participants are key managers and engineers.
Besides its materials forecasts, the interiors study of the North American automotive industry includes sections on strategic planning, safety issues, technology and globalization. Forecasts were through the year 2005.
The study's materials section aims its sights directly on plastics, where interiors usage dominates all areas except seat frames and covers and instrument panel cross beams.
No single engineered resin or composite dominated the results. In fact, the wide fluctuation of responses for many forecasted future materials indicated disagreement or uncertainty about material choices, the researchers reported. One panelist even suggested a potential materials revolution for some interior parts in the next five years.
Recycling also could be emerging as a thorny issue. Panelists suggested, on average, that increased plastics recylability legislation is probable by 2000. Those respondents also concluded that recyclability would be important for material selection by the year 2005, even though it was not considered a major influencing factor today.
As expected, cost issues will continue to be the major driver in material selection, according to the study. However, weight savings are expected to become almost as important within the next decade, to meet fuel efficiency demands by consumers.
The panel suggested the industry will face a battle producing vehicles with both reduced weight and cost. Traditionally, the two factors have conflicted, with the industry choosing low cost over light weight, the panel concluded.
The study also looked at the possible advent of plastic car side and rear windows made from polycarbonate or plastic-laminated glass. By the year 2005, the results indicated that only 4 percent of side and rear windows in North America would be made from PC, and that only 7 percent of side windows and 10 percent of rear windows would use laminated glass.
The panelists predicted that more and more material decisions will include not only the material's effect on the part but also its effect on the entire interior system. However, the group cautioned that their results could be profoundly affected by emerging design and manufacturing technologies.