TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — The long, successful ride for plastics in the automotive industry might be turning to more of a motor race, with competing materials now in the passing lane.
The use of plastics has grown phenomenally in vehicles for more than a decade, said Peter Beardmore, Chemical and Physical Sciences Laboratory director for Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich. However, few areas remain in a vehicle to fuel major growth in the future, he said. The material might have reached a plateau.
Meanwhile, competition is coming from alternate materials, such as ultralight steel, aluminum and magnesium, Beardmore said during an Aug. 4 speech at the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
``Over the years, plastics has been a clear winner, but there's virtually nowhere else for it to grow,'' Beardmore said. ``It's never been a great material for structural applications due to its cost and other factors. That's an area where a lot of the next growth will come.''
Beardmore said the use of aluminum in vehicle body panels and magnesium for components such as steering wheel frames is coming into vogue. Aluminum in particular offers weight and cost savings. A pound of aluminum costs 55 percent less than an equivalent amount of steel, he said.
On the other hand, plastics composites seldom will be used for structural components — those hidden parts that help support a vehicle's foundation — in high-volume applications. High tooling costs and slow cycles make sheet molding compound a bit cost-prohibitive for applications beyond 40,000 vehicles, he said.
In addition, the use of carbon or graphite fibers is not an option until costs are reduced to about $3 a pound. Although that would make the composite material competitive, it is not expected to happen any time soon, he said.
``Nobody I know is aware of how to get to that cost,'' Beardmore said. ``They don't even have an idea.''
Beardmore's comments might explain why Ford opted this spring to build its fuel-efficient, next-generation vehicle with a cast aluminum body and structural components. The vehicle, which Ford expects in production roughly by the year 2005, is targeted, in theory, to get as many as 70 miles per gallon.
However, plastics suppliers shouldn't sell the farm, Beardmore said. While the growth in plastics might be peaking, the lofty place currently enjoyed by the material should not be undermined soon, he said.
Plastics especially has made recent inroads in blow molding automotive applications, Beardmore said. Ford has used the material recently to make blow molded bumper beams and fuel tanks. Another recent application, the use of nylon air-intake manifolds, also has given plastics a sharp rise, he said.