A lot of people start off January with New Year's resolutions: eat better, exercise more, reduce stress, stop smoking
And, for most of the auto industry, lose weight.
Seoul, South Korea-based Hyundai Motor Co. has even set a target for itself, to cut 10 percent of the weight across its vehicle line by 2015, which will mean hundreds of pounds off cars and minivans. The lighter weight will help the carmaker meet stricter corporate average fuel economy standards in the U.S., even as hybrids and improvements in traditional motors squeeze more miles per gallon out of fuel.
We talk so much about fuel economy and engines, but bringing weight down is an even bigger challenge, Scott Margason, product planning director for Hyundai North America, said in a Jan. 11 interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ten percent is a very daunting task.
Other automakers are talking about targets internally and with suppliers, but Hyundai may be the first to go public with specific numbers, said Jeff Schuster, executive director of J.D. Power and Associates' automotive forecasting division. Other carmakers are talking to suppliers off the record about the need to take anywhere from 250 pounds to 500 pounds from their vehicles.
Much of that effort is driven by U.S. regulations that require carmakers to hit average fuel performance of 351/2 miles per gallon by the 2016 model year, compared with about 26 miles per gallon for 2010.
Hyundai's Blue-Will concept car takes a long-view approach. Its all-electric engine uses lithium polymer batteries and also saves weight by using carbon fiber and nanocomposite plastics on the exterior body side sills, moldings and fenders. But saving weight does not require exotic materials, Schuster added, and is something drivers might not ever notice.
The company recently switched from aluminum to composite cam covers for its 3.5-liter engine, for instance. A similar switch from aluminum to a mineral- and glass-filled nylon composite for Ford Motor Co.'s 3.7-liter engine saved Ford about 30 percent in weight, according to DuPont Co. executives.
Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive LLP is winning new business with a car radio housed in an insert-molded polycarbonate/ABS casing rather than metal, which cuts 1.2 pounds.
All those little pieces add up, Schuster said.
Weight savings has become a key driver in discussions about future products even as important or sometimes more important than cost, said Jeff Helms, global automotive manager for Ticona Engineering Polymers.
That doesn't mean that cost isn't important. It'll always be important, but there are projects at most of the [automakers] to find plastics to replace metal parts, he said.
Some carmakers that might have dragged their feet about adopting plastics in favor of familiar metal for their screw attachments and assemblies are now actively adopting plastics, Helms said.
Some of the interest is in old-school plastics, but newer structural composites now used in aerospace are getting a second look as well.
Interiors supplier Faurecia SA is talking to carmakers about trimming weight by using natural-fiber composites for instrument panels and door panels. The company also is getting attention for its thin seats, which reduce mass 17 percent by using a two-piece thermoplastic composite in place of most of the traditional metal, foam and fabric construction.
Weight reduction is a key metric for everyone now, said Dana Lowell, director of advanced business development for Faurecia North America, based in Auburn Hills, Mich.
So although body panels such as those made of carbon fiber and nanocomposite on Hyundai's Blue-Will concept may not be standard beyond a few high-end sports cars, other plastics are getting more attention now than they have for a long time and that focus is expected to continue.
If you're talking about 10 percent weight reduction, Margason said, you have to look at everything.
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