The debate over fuel economy rules in Washington could have an impact on the bottom line for some auto suppliers.
Higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy - or CAFE - standards for U.S. vehicles will lead to more metal parts being replaced with plastics, and more opportunities for plastics that promise better engine performance.
``It could be a really good thing for some of the plastics suppliers who have had a lot of innovative materials,'' said Kim Korth, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based consulting group IRN Inc. Korth was interviewed at the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars, held in Traverse City from Aug. 6-10.
CAFE standards now require automakers to make a fleet of cars with an average fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon. Trucks must hit an average of 22.2 mpg.
Washington is considering plans that include requiring cars and trucks to average 35 mpg by 2018, or 32 mpg by 2022 - at the lowest.
Those changes will bring new opportunities extending beyond composite body panels, which have been the typical focus of attempts to lighten cars and squeeze out a few more miles per gallon. As automakers expand their focus for new technology, they will be looking at companies and components that can improve the way the car runs.
``Our materials have been used under the hood for years,'' said Chris Murphy, automotive director-Americas for DuPont Co.'s Automotive Performance Materials in Wilmington, Del. ``All these changes keep creating markets for us.''
Injection molder and blow molder Mann+Hummel GmbH specifically targets new product development that can meet regulatory changes - along with those matching environmental and cost improvements, said Claude Mathieu, president of Mann+Hummel USA Inc., the North American division of the German auto supplier. So as governments require more miles per gallon, the company can fine-tune products such as air-intake modules to improve overall engine operation.
And plastic - especially nylon and thermosets like bulk molding compound - keeps finding new contracts to replace metal for cam covers and oil pans.
Murphy said DuPont is working with suppliers on new powertrain products that will appear on cars in the next year or two, as well as with automakers on long-range concepts that may take a decade before they end up in production.
``[Automakers] really need material experts right now,'' he said.
Higher fuel standards also are likely to offset concerns about higher resin costs that have hit auto suppliers recently, while providing incentive for new products to break through on the market, Korth said.
``The question is what the tipping point will be in pricing for new technologies,'' she said. ``For a couple of years there was a downdraft because of petroleum prices. Now you might have a whole new type of part, a whole new area that suddenly becomes feasible.''