Bigger government could drive bigger business for plastics in automotive applications.
Plastics will make a sharp swerve forward during the next decade if the U.S. government enacts tighter fuel-efficiency regulations, according to a study published by the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
That could lead to a feverish working laboratory to develop lightweight materials for vehicles, a campaign that is starting today. Both plastics and aluminum would be the biggest benefactors.
But another, darker chapter could await if fuel standards remain at current levels, said University of Michigan senior research associate Brett Smith, co-author of the materials section of the ninth annual Delphi forecasts.
The battle for plastics supremacy would then become an incestuous affair, with one material plucking market share from another while the universe of plastics does not grow considerably, Smith said.
``There would seem to be some change but it will be to a single family of plastics,'' Smith said from his office in Ann Arbor, Mich. ``The continuous movement may not be between different materials, like from steel to plastics, but within materials.''
For the study, university researchers polled 266 panel members representing the automotive industry in various capacities, including top executives, managers, engineering specialists and consultants.
About 63 percent of the panelists were employed by parts suppliers, while 29 percent worked for automakers and 3 percent were outside consultants. Other members' affiliations were undetermined.
That expert panel said thermoplastic olefins, polypropylene, nylon and polyethylene would gain the most during the upcoming materials battle.
The consensus of the experts is that those commodity resins will gradually displace PVC, ABS and urethane materials in interiors applications, the area where plastics has staked its largest claim.
Biggest gains for TPOs and PP were expected in instrument panel skins, door trim panels, interior trim panels and airbag doors.
Those findings struck a controversial note with some material suppliers. Michael Greeby, instrument panel product development manager with Southfield, Mich.-based GE Plastics' automotive group, said ABS and polycarbonate are both lower in cost and more scratch-resistant than PP.
``We can't disagree that polypropylene is coming,'' Greeby said. ``But we believe that we can still play. The consumer in the North American market has higher quality expectations than they have globally, and our products can best meet those expectations.''
A driving force behind the use of TPOs and PP is the potential elimination of paint, an expensive proposition for an interior, and material consolidation to aid recycling, the study suggested. Greeby said GE Plastics' top development objective is to formulate products that eliminate paint.
The switch to TPOs and PP is already starting at Lear Corp., a large interior parts supplier in Southfield, said Lear advanced process development director Jack Van Ert. That move is driven largely by the ease of recycling material from the same olefinic family.
However, instrument panel skins made of TPO have yet to be made in large commercial applications.
The university's panelists saw regulations requiring plastics recycling to be somewhat likely by 2002 and even more likely by 2007.
Yet, when asked about the importance of recyclability in the material selection process, those same panelists put that issue far down the list of priorities. Hotter issues included cost, safety considerations and weight savings.
Most panelists said that plastics recycling will succeed if either government pressure increases or it becomes more economically viable, Smith said.
``It doesn't appear consumers are too concerned about it today,'' he said.
However, weight savings is a different matter. The panelists expected stronger fuel-efficiency standards to wend their way to this continent the way they already have in Europe.
The study predicted that the use of plastics will coast upward by 10 percent if the government imposes a 30 mile-per-gallon minimum for cars over the coming decade. If a 35 mile-per-gallon limit is enacted, plastics use would rise by 19 percent, the surveyed panel said.
If those standards remain unchanged, plastics usage in cars will travel upward by about 5 percent, the study estimated.
However, it may be premature to believe the industry will move to lightweight materials to meet emissions standards, said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan automotive office. Instead, the industry may emphasize major powertrain changes, he said.
``Each manufacturer is sitting on a deck of cards with methods to improve fuel economy,'' Cole said. ``Lightweight materials are inherently more expensive than steel. There are other cards in the hand, some of which haven't been played yet.''
The study also predicted that plastics would not make as large an inroad on a car's exterior, even with a move to lighter materials. However, TPOs will increasingly become the material of choice for bumper fascias.
In underhood parts, air-cleaner housings, air-intake manifolds and rocker-arm covers will steadily shift from metal to plastic, the panel predicted. But contrary to some supplier predictions, about half of all manifolds in North America will still be made from aluminum by 2007.
Plastics also will not make a dent in the window market, the panelists said. That forecast comes despite joint development work by GE Plastics and Bayer Corp. to produce a fixed PC window.
The panel estimated current plastics usage on an average passenger car at 245 pounds, compared to 1,782 pounds for steel, 389 pounds for cast iron and 195 pounds for aluminum.