Plastics are playing a larger role in making cars lighter and commercializing electric vehicles, but for one prominent automotive designer, more still needs to be done.
In an interview at the recent Business of Design Week in Hong Kong, Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of BMW Group Design, said he is excited by creative possibilities opening up with new lightweight materials, including traditional plastics in new applications, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and aluminum.
But he also urged materials firms to continue making advancements, as car companies come under more environmental pressure. He also had some specific advice for plastics companies.
“[Reducing vehicle weight] is getting more and more important because we are going into, I think, an era of quite a lot of change in the automotive field,” said van Hooydonk, who is responsible for design development of the BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce brands. “We are going to zero-emission mobility.”
BMW, for example, plans to roll out what it calls “zero local” emission or low-emission models in 2013, including its all-electric i3 for urban driving and its hybrid i8 sports car.
Early in his career, van Hooydonk worked as a designer for GE Plastics Europe in Bergen Op Zoom, the Netherlands.
He said both of the new i Series cars use all-plastic body panels, a carbon-fiber plastic composite structure and aluminum substructures. They're all needed to cut weight to accommodate the heavy batteries the next-generation cars need, he said.
In its press materials for the i Series, BMW said CFRP is at least as strong as steel but 50 percent lighter.
“We are looking into all sorts of materials,” van Hooydonk said before his speech at the Hong Kong event, a weeklong series of related conferences from Nov. 28 to Dec. 5. “You probably know we are looking into carbon fiber but we are also looking into all sorts of plastics.
“Governments around the world are pushing for cleaner cities; this is understandable,” he said. “They are putting legislation in place to get cars with lower emissions.”
BMW is particularly interested in CFRP materials, and is working to fully commercialize what he called “industrial” carbon-fiber manufacturing that can be mass-produced quickly.
He contrasted that with the current carbon-fiber-manufacturing technology it uses, which is similar to that used to make race cars, a very slow process.
“We're pushing very hard to make that happen but it is a new territory,” he said. “I think we are at the forefront of that technology, from what I know. In two years' time we can say that we have done it but at the moment we can say we're developing it.”
BMW opened a joint venture carbon-fiber-manufacturing plant in Washington state in mid-2011.
Van Hooydonk's comments about weight reduction and the key role of new materials echoed other auto designers at the Hong Kong event, including Olivier Boulay, head of Mercedes-Benz's new Advanced Design Center of China, who agreed that the environmental pressures on car companies are pushing new materials.
“You can go with plastic, you can go with aluminum, carbon fiber, whatever,” Boulay said. “We need every day to go with lighter and lighter but also strong … materials.”
Beyond weight, van Hooydonk said these materials open up design possibilities.
“Of course as a designer I like working in these new materials because it offers a lot of sculptural freedom,” he said. “Typically in those kinds of materials, you can create very nice shapes, complex shapes, [and] you can create sharp lines as well as soft surface transitions. Those are all things that are important to us at BMW.”
He also had some specific advice for plastics companies for research.
In-mold coloring processes need to be improved so they can stand up to the performance requirements of the auto industry, and let car companies use parts from the mold for a Class A, high-gloss surface without needing to be painted, he said.