The North American auto industry is already on its weight-savings diet to meet new fuel economy targets. The question for plastics suppliers is how much more business they can win beyond those first years and first pounds.
Thinner walls for interior and exterior trim and lighter composite parts are only the beginning, carmakers and suppliers said during the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Thermoplastic Polyolefins Conference Oct. 2-5 in Troy. The real success will be measured in far bigger parts.
“The industry is rethinking steel as never before, and the plastics industry needs to take this opportunity and run with it,” said Leon Jacobs, polypropylene global business director for Sabic Innovative Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass.
The North American auto industry faces higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that will be phased in starting in 2016 on its way to a 54.5-miles-per-gallon requirement in 2025, compared to less than 30 mpg currently. The European Union also is phasing in new emission-controls regulations — the Euro 6 standards — that hit the market in 2014 and impacts production there.
“The truth is, 2016 is tomorrow,” Jacobs said. “Those cars are already designed. But for those in 2025, we have many more things we can do.”
If plastics suppliers fail to follow through, they face limited growth prospects. After all, said Dagmar van Heur, vice president of Automotive for Berwyn, Penn.-based Styron LLC, automakers want to take 100 kilograms out of the car annually, not just 5 or 10. To win new business with those kinds of numbers, plastics suppliers must find structural applications where it can replace steel and aluminum in complete body panels, chassis and beams.
And to win business over steel, plastics companies must be willing to spend time educating the industry.
“Every engineer in the auto industry can work with steel and aluminum,” van Heur said. “Do they have the same understanding of composites as they do with steel? No.”
Styron, a former unit of Dow Chemical Co. sold to private equity group Bain Capital LLC in 2010, has launched a long-term project to work with vehicle engineering students at key universities in the U.S., Germany and England to provide them with a solid grounding in plastics, so future car engineers will be more open to structural plastics, he said.
“We have to go where these people are educated so that they are educated from the start,” he said.
Polyolefins, which had started to win new business in structural applications such as front-end module carriers, could lose ground in the future from automakers worried that hotter temperatures under the hood will limit thermoplastics' use in future engines, he said.
Brian Bradley, the director of product engineering for Aurora, Ontario-based Magna International Inc.'s Exteriors and Interiors group, said future structural applications could use thermoplastics in a hybrid configuration, blending the best of multiple materials. That could mean a glass-filled polyolefin with a steel-tubing structure or developing TPO combined with sheet molded compound for car doors and liftgates.
“We need to find new ways to improve the finished product with new processing methods using existing materials,” he said.
Jacobs noted that the technology and capability already exists for an all-thermoplastic liftgate — from structural components to inner and outer skin and a glazed polycarbonate window — but automakers must be convinced to buy into it as well.
The auto industry already has made big strides in using more plastics, and using it well, and is willing to change, noted George Halow, global cockpit and trim chief engineer for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. Halow took on the post overseeing ford's interiors earlier this year — his third sojourn into the plastics side of the business, he said.
His first assignment with Ford put him in the interiors plant in Saline, Mich., which is now part of Ford-owned Automotive Components Holdings LLC. It was a conservative business approach there in the early and mid-1990s, focused on pushing through large parts using Dylark styrene maleic anhydride.
Halow later worked with the exteriors group just as TPO was winning new business on bumper fascias, and working its way through problems with peeling paint.
“Now to come back into the business again, I'm amazed at the amount of change in the industry already and the forward-thinking today,” he said.
Interested in how plastics can help meet the higher CAFE standards? Attend Plastics News' Plastics in Lightweight & Electric Vehicles 2011 conference scheduled for Nov. 8-9 in Livonia, Mich. See www.autolightweighting.com for more information.