For years, mileage performance and the lightweight benefits of plastics simmered slowly on the auto industry's back burner. Weight savings were mentioned during sales calls, but weight never played much of a part in sales on its own.
That's changing now, thanks to an agreement with the U.S. government that calls for corporate average fuel economy — or CAFE — standards to climb to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from less than 30 mpg in 2010.
To hit that number, automakers will use new electric-power and hybrid-engine technologies, refine their existing internal-combustion engines, rely on smaller cars and also cut weight from across their vehicle fleet. Ford Motor Co., for instance, has gone on the record saying it wants to lighten cars by between 200 pounds and 700 pounds in the coming years.
The reality of those numbers is putting a new emphasis on lighter-weight options, including plastics.
“In the last six months to a year, I'm seeing projects sanctioned for development because of weight reduction,” said Jim Cederstrom, automotive business development manager for Bulk Molding Compounds Inc. “That's new.”
Cutting weight will not guarantee sales or interest on its own, Cederstrom and others throughout the industry said, but it is opening the door for conversations that plastics suppliers have sought for years.
“There's no time better than the present for this discussion on cost and weight and performance objectives,” said Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran, director of automotive for Sabic Innovative Plastics.
The CAFE standards agreement, announced July 29, provided the background for discussions throughout the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars, held Aug. 1-4 in Traverse City. The Center for Automotive Research, which organizes the annual conference, had a full session on lightweighting. At the same time, CAR also is trying to establish itself as a neutral storehouse for information and cooperation for reducing weight.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CAR already has formed the Collaboration for Automotive Lightweighting Materials to gather information on research and development. The group includes input from the Washington-based American Chemistry Council, which operates an automotive learning center in suburban Detroit, as well as representatives from the steel and aluminum industries.
Part of the problem, CAR CEO Jay Baron said, is that most so-called studies so far are typically backed by one company or one material source and want to promote that material.
One report, he noted, may estimate that it will cost the industry $1 per pound to reduce weight in a car. Another puts that estimate at $2. Still another insists industry costs will decline by 50 cents.
“You don't know which costs are included in one report and which ones are left out,” he said.
The ultimate answer may lie in some combination of materials, like the hybrid plastic and steel carriers on front-end modules, Baron said. To help the industry make a shift, he noted, the companies must begin by speaking the same language.
Some of the new focus will fall on exotic materials and new engine technology. But there also are opportunities in standard parts with materials — such as bulk molding compounds — that have been a backbone of the industry for decades.
Plastics have steadily won a bigger and bigger role in the auto industry even without CAFE's help, pointed out Bruce Benda, who oversees the North American auto and transportation market for Bayer MaterialScience AG of Leverkusen, Germany. Since 1999, thermoplastics and composites have grown by nearly 4 percent per year and now add up to an average of 384 pounds per vehicle, according to the ACC. In 2000, that average was closer to 250 pounds.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat SpA and Chrysler Group LLC, said no one in the auto industry should fear the coming regulations. The higher CAFE standards will be a “stimulus package” on engineering and research from across the spectrum.
“It's like walking into a toy store,” he said, “and you can use any toy off the shelf to get you there.”
Getting into that toy store, however, will not be easy. Automakers, in general, are used to steel and understand the mechanical engineering involved in metals, Baron said. Chemical engineering is a foreign language to many of them, so resin firms know they must spend time on education.
“It's a question of whether they know what to do with [plastics],” said Jeffrey Brennan, chief marketing officer and executive vice pres- ident for Altair Engineering Inc. of Troy, Mich. The company makes software that helps suppliers and automakers alike compare materials for parts and find the best way to use those materials.
Injection molders were among Altair's first clients because they saw the software as a way to help customers design lightweight, thin-wall parts, he said. The software is used throughout multiple industries now, including at auto industry design and engineering operations looking for ways to shed weight.
“We're material agnostic, so people use us as a fair evaluator of material choice, so we're seeing a lot of business in the respect that plastics, that aluminum, that steel all want to show that they can do something better.”
Here's a sampling of areas where plastics could play a bigger role, as well as parts already in production or being considered:
Global suppliers like Johnson Controls Inc., with an auto center in Plymouth, Mich., and Faurecia SA, with North American operations in Auburn Hills, Mich., have shown thinner-seat concepts using engineered foam and thermoplastic composites.
Also under consideration are instrument panels and doors that shave weight by eliminating the need for decorative cover skins, instead showing off natural-fiber substrates.
Interiors suppliers also have proposed eliminating the standard cross-car steel beam that stretches under the instrument panel, and replacing it with a lighter structural plastic.
BMS has worked with suppliers and automakers to develop a polycarbonate/ABS blend that would eliminate some metal brackets, allow for thinner walls but still provide the structural and performance standards carmakers and consumers want, Benda said.
Pittsfield, Mass.-based Sabic is supplying polyurethane for a steering wheel that eliminates the metal inner core and puts in place an all-plastic structure, Umamaheswaran said. The steering wheel, set to go into production later this year in Asia, is 20 percent lighter.
German automaker BMW AG has gotten plenty of attention for its upcoming carbon-fiber car, the i3. General Motors Co. of Detroit used a Sabic thermoplastic composite for the body of the concept version of its Chevrolet Volt electric car — though it decided to use steel in the car now on the road.
While automakers beyond BMW have not gone public with any large-scale plastic body panel plans, plastics are continuing to garner interest in individual parts and modules.
Sunroofs and rear windows using glazed PC already are on the road in Europe and seeing more interest in North America in light of the new CAFE standards — especially when they're part of a complete module incorporating window, frame and other body parts, Benda said.
“They're looking at PC sunroofs with a PC/ABS surround for both weight savings and design flexibility,” he said. “The same thing is true in rear lift gates.”
Magna International Inc. of Aurora, Ontario, is developing a variety of interior and exterior parts including thermoplastic lift gates. In its newly opened composites research center — established with support from the Canadian government — the company also is looking at the potential for large-scale use of structural plastics including, potentially, the replacement of some steel in car chassis.
Baypreg composite, a polyurethane sandwich structure made by Bayer MaterialScience, is used as a load floor on the Volt, according to Benda, and the company is looking at a variety of other parts as well.
Under the hood
Electric- and hybrid-powered engines, which rely on lithium-ion batteries made of sheets of treated thermoplastic at the core, have received a lot of the fuel-economy attention. Combined with connectors, air and liquid cooling systems to control battery heat, high-voltage wiring and other components, they create cars using more plastic than today's standard gasoline engine.
But Cederstrom said no one should ignore the growing potential for plastics in those internal-combustion systems. Plastic systems are just at the start of a growth cycle for parts like oil pans, previously only made with metals.
“If you look at where we were 20 years ago in terms of air-intake manifolds, you'd see plastic just beginning there, and then there was steady growth until today when plastic is the norm,” he said. “That's where the oil pan is today in terms of plastic coming into the market.”
High-heat thermoplastics like nylon and polybutylene terephthalate and thermo- sets like BMC are all seeing opportunities, he said.
There are now plastic engine mounts that replace steel. Composite radiator supports, oil-filter modules, turbocharger engine covers and electronic throttle-control units were all finalists in the Society of Plastics Engineers' annual automotive innovation awards competition.
And Cederstrom expects more demand to come for highly engineered plastic parts as automakers try to improve efficiency of their engines, even though plastics may not be the first material to come to mind when engine specialists start talking about horsepower.
To help meet fuel standards, he said, carmakers will “downsize” their engines, relying on a four-cylinder engine rather than a six-cylinder. Drivers will want the same power despite the smaller engine, however, so automakers will use more turbochargers and direct-injection technology to squeeze more out of smaller systems. They still want to cut weight on those parts, and at the same time, they will need more high-performance systems as a part of those engines.
The electronic throttle body made by Germany's Continental AG for GM engines, for instance, may not look like an opportunity for plastics, but the seven different plastic parts inside it delivered both performance and a weight savings of 43 grams.
“We're working with advance development groups from the [automakers] and suppliers everywhere, just educating them on materials and helping them look at whole systems,” Cederstrom said.