Sabic Innovative Plastics and its partners think they have what the auto industry needs lightweight materials just as carmakers are scrambling for ways to improve fuel economy.
Sabic, based in Pittsfield, Mass., and Azdel Inc. of Shelby, N.C., have commercially launched Ixis, a multilayer thermoplastic composite sheet that can be used in large, horizontal body panels for cars and trucks. Sabic also is introducing Stamax to North America for use in structural parts; the long-glass-fiber injection molded material previously sold in Europe.
``It's right in the sweet spot, with lower weight,'' Mark Neville, business unit director for Sabic's polypropylene automotive, said of Ixis.
The sheet potentially could be a major breakthrough for thermoplastic composites because previous thermoplastics could not be used on large horizontal panels such as hoods, roofs and trunk lids. The compression molded composite can be used in the same places that thermosets like sheet molded compound are used now, said Mike Birrell, exterior composites director at Azdel's Royston, England, office. He spoke in a Sept. 16 interview at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition in Troy.
A chopped glass-fiber core encapsulated by thermoplastic not only gives the structural rigidity needed for large horizontal panels, but it has better temperature stability than standard thermoplastic allowing a better fit and finish, a key selling point for carmakers and designers alike. But Ixis also is flexible enough to help the car meet pedestrian safety standards in Europe, said automotive marketing director William Mills.
The current blend Azdel has put on the market uses PP. It can be painted to meet auto exterior quality levels, but must be painted separately from metal body parts. But Azdel and Sabic plan to launch a new blend within two years, using Sabic's Xenoy polycarbonate/polybutylene terephthalate, which can be painted on the same paint line as metal parts.
A Xenoy version of Ixis, then called a ``high-performance thermoplastic composite,'' made up the body of General Motors Corp.'s concept Volt electric vehicle when it debuted at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit and also has been used on concepts by Hyundai and Ford. GM's production Volt, shown by the Detroit-based carmaker Sept. 16 at SPE's exhibition, has a metal body, but automakers are aware of Ixis' potential and are anxious to find the right use for it, Birrell said.
At about half the weight of standard body panels, the Azdel and Sabic plastic should attract automakers that need to strip pounds off their cars and trucks to hit new mileage performance requirements. Lower tooling costs, meanwhile, will help it compete for cost against sheet metal, which has been the industry standard.
Stamax already has been marketing itself as a weight-saving alternative in Europe, where it is used in front-end modules and door and instrument panels. Sabic IP parent Saudi Basic Industries Corp. bought Stamax BV in 2003 as the long-glass-fiber injection molded PP blend was winning wide use for structural parts. But the material never found much traction in North America, Neville said.
The business climate has changed with higher fuel prices and higher requirements for fuel efficiency, though, and Sabic is ready to launch production of Stamax blends in North America in 2009, he said.
The glass-reinforced plastic allows for thinner walls with the same structural performance as other thermoplastic blends, and can be used in place of steel for many parts to reduce weight.
At the same time, European molders that have used Stamax for years including Valeo SA, Cie. Plastic Omnium and Faurecia SA have been growing their presence in North America and want to expand their use of the material in the region, Neville said. Sabic also plans to expand production in Asia in 2010.
``They're very keen on seeing us globalize this process,'' he said.