For years, auto industry engineers said that their top issue in doing business was about cost finding ways to make parts for less money.
Now that top issue has gotten a little more complicated.
In a survey of 350 Society of Automotive Engineers members, DuPont Co. found that the top issue is balancing the cost of doing business with increased regulatory pressures for the cars the industry is turning out; balancing demands for customer convenience with weight reductions; creating in-vehicle electronics with ease of use; and bringing more innovative parts to the market in a short time frame.
What we're seeing when we talk to the engineers is that they're asking, 'How are we going to get all of this done?' said David Glasscock, DuPont global automotive technology director, in a March 29 phone interview.
The Wilmington, Del.-based company commissioned the survey by Signet Research Inc. of Cliffside Park, N.J., after a two-year break from its annual SAE survey.
Fifty percent of the engineers said that their biggest issue was balancing all the demands they face from customers, the supply chain and meeting government regulations for improved mileage. Another 36 percent cited business issues such as an unstable supply chain, fluctuating cost structures and financial markets as a top issue, while another 14 percent stressed technology gaps including battery technology for hybrid and electric cars as the top concern.
There are issues in each of the top three areas that DuPont is working on with engineers, from providing lightweight but durable plastics to helping automakers and their suppliers meet government targets and still make a profit, Glasscock noted.
It is working with automakers on newer under-the-hood components, such as thermoplastic oil pans, which also can integrate other features, allowing firms to reduce part prices today. Its battery technology group, on the other hand, is focusing on materials that will help get more distance out of smaller battery packs on future hybrid and electric cars.
There are obviously a lot of things that you're trying to juggle in the industry right now, Glasscock said. There's the question of what people want, vs. what's a technical reality, and I think that's where science can really come in.
In the survey, 93 percent of the engineers said that environmental regulations, including fuel economy and emissions, are influencing vehicle design. Five years ago, only 60 percent thought regulations were playing a leading role.
While hybrid and electric powertrains will continue to grow, he noted that automakers are looking beyond swapping horsepower for voltage.
To get more from beneath the hood, but without giving up speed and power, carmakers are adding turbo chargers and other items that will allow them to use a four-cylinder engine in place of a six-cylinder one, or a six cylinder for an eight cylinder. That means higher temperatures in the engine compartment, and engineered thermoplastics that must withstand increased pressure and aggressive chemicals, Glasscock said.
DuPont's new Zytel Plus nylon resin, for instance, is designed for long-term heat resistance and already is tagged for use in an engine cover and in an upcoming exhaust-gas recirculation system in Europe, which reduces nitrogen oxide emissions.
Plastics are not alone under the spotlight. Ninety-five percent of engineers said materials all materials are seeing an increased importance.
Plastics, metals, composites everything, Glasscock said. And costs are going up. Metal prices have been skyrocketing, and [automakers] are looking at all the different materials out there and how they're going to build automobiles in the future.