New U.S. requirements for better fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions have plastics suppliers hoping they will have new sales opportunities for their parts.
The auto industry has been bracing itself for the first big hike in fuel standards in more than 20 years, and on May 19, the federal government rolled out requirements to boost that standard nearly 10 miles per gallon by 2016 to an average of 35.5 mpg. The first hike will hit vehicles in 2012.
The new rules will provide a nationwide standard, replacing what could have been a mixture of requirements from more than a dozen different states, including California. That will help automakers plan for production, but also requires a fast start by those same companies to find ways to improve performance in their cars and trucks. And it gives them a real reason to improve mileage, which consumer demand and the American love for large cars has not.
The [automakers] are not the beneficiary of gas mileage, said Cedric Ball, marketing projects leader for Ashland Chemical Co.'s performance materials group. The vehicle owner is the beneficiary. Now the initiative is there.
One of the fastest ways to get more miles out of each gallon of gasoline without changing the entire operating system is to cut weight.
Obviously this is wonderful news and will create many different opportunities for the companies that can provide a significant weight advantage, said Stephane Leroux, worldwide marketing manager for the automotive segment of Solutia Inc.'s Saflex laminated glass program.
A 10 percent drop in the weight of an average vehicle will boost its fuel economy by 6-8 percent, said Lee Childers, vice president of materials engineering for International Automotive Components LLC, a Dearborn, Mich.-based auto interiors supplier.
Those kinds of numbers are the ones that companies will use to bolster their arguments to invest in lighter-weight alternatives, which play into plastics' key selling points. Plastics will not be alone, however. High-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium and other metals also are polishing up their lightweight credentials.
For plastics, there are new opportunities throughout the vehicle, however, from windshields to engine components to body panels and structural interior parts.
St. Louis-based Solutia is touting the opportunity to use its polyvinyl butyral film inner layer with enhanced acoustic performance to shave a few millimeters of glass from windshields, which will cut about 5 pounds in weight off the average car, Leroux said.
A typical windshield is made with two sheets of glass, each 2.1mm thick, with a PVB protective layer between them. Taking one of those sheets down to 1.6mm cuts weight without affecting safety or performance. Adding an additional acoustic barrier in the film maintains the same comfort level from road noise in the car.
The reduced weight also cuts carbon-dioxide emissions by 6.6 kilograms per car.
We have very good examples already in Europe, Leroux said.
Higher fuel taxes there have prompted extensive weight-shaving programs for European-made cars, with one out of every three already using a lighter-weight windshield. In North America, there are only three or four vehicles using thinner-glass options.
Expanding the same concept to side windows could potentially save even more weight.
At the same time, polycarbonate suppliers have additional ammunition as they line up to try and replace some of those glass windows with all plastic.
Weight-saving opportunities are available today, Childers said, and IAC and other suppliers are pointing out that they can respond quickly with parts not just parts in development. Those range from replacing all-steel instrument panels with structural plastic or metal and plastic hybrids to natural-fiber composites in door panels and part consolidation that cuts the number of fasteners needed. IAC could cut 43 pounds out of an interior just with current technology, he said.
Future developments could improve weight and push plastics use even further. Magna International Inc.'s Decoma Exteriors and Interiors unit, based in Aurora, Ontario, already has used lighter-weight steel for structural seat frames, said Jeff Corkins, chief engineer for research and development with the company's seating group.
It has new production now making frames with magnesium using a molding process similar to injection molding. The next step in weight reduction may be transferring in-line compounding of long glass fibers in injection molding from Decoma's exterior parts to interior parts.
Decoma already uses in-line compounding on parts like one-piece running boards. The structural capabilities there and control over the glass flow may make it possible to replace steel frames with injection molded frames, he said.
Dublin, Ohio-based Ashland is in development with three different automakers to begin using its lightweight low density sheet molded compound in future vehicles, Ball said, and the SMC could come on line quickly. Ashland nearly canceled its low density SMC program at one point, because it could not meet low-cost targets from an auto industry that could always use standard steel. The lighter-weight composite is more expensive than standard SMC.
The company pushed ahead, though, and found business in the commercial truck market, and now is seeing the possibility for a real breakthrough in the auto industry as well.
The potential has been there, the technology has been there, to have three times as much SMC and [bulk molded compound], Ball said. We're getting to the point now where maybe, just maybe, we're going to get there.