China's automobile market may have surpassed the United States in 2009 to become the world's largest, but when it comes to plastics and cars, the country still has some catching up to do.
The average Chinese economy car uses about 110 pounds of plastic, compared with 286 to 396 pounds per vehicle in mature markets like the United States.
That means Chinese cars use more metal, making them heavier, less fuel efficient and potentially more polluting.
But some foreign and Chinese industry officials believe the domestic car industry is ready to quickly adopt more plastic technologies as part of a broad strategy to be more environmentally friendly.
One concrete step: a group of global plastics suppliers and Chinese car companies, including Chang'an Automobile Group Co. Ltd., Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd. and Beiqi Foton Motor Co. Ltd., announced a technology alliance Nov. 28 aimed at ramping up their use of plastics. The global resin firms include Rhodia SA, DSM NV and Arkema SA.
The alliance was announced at the 6th International Auto Plastics and Innovative Materials Development Forum in Cangzhou, where several Chinese car makers talked about their plans to increase use of plastics and challenges they faced.
The chairman of the International Auto Lightweight Technology Alliance, Chang'an executive Cao Du, said he thinks the Chinese industry will move quickly to the level of plastics used in vehicles in developed markets.
To date, Chinese car makers have been focused on improving quality, but government pressures and new demands from electric vehicles are making weight reduction a much higher priority, said Cao, vice president of the Chang'an Auto Global R&D Center in Chongqing.
Cao also is vice chairman of the group that organized the Cangzhou conference, the Auto Plastics and Innovative Materials Committee of the Shanghai-based Sino-European Union Chemical Manufacturers Association.
An executive with Chinese vehicle maker Beiqi Foton told the conference that engineering plastics are playing a greater role in the company's designs, although he urged the industry to make them less expensive to get wider use.
“For the past few years we have been paying attention to light-weighting automobiles,” said Yan Gao, deputy director of Foton's Automotive Engineering Institute. “Engineering plastics is our work direction, to use the plastic parts to replace metals and other alloy parts. The improvement is quite good.”
For example, Yan said the company has switched its medium and heavy-duty truck bumpers from steel to plastic, adopted glass-fiber-reinforced plastics in some vehicle components, and switched some engine components from metals to plastics.
Consumer attitudes are changing, Yan said. In the past Chinese truck buyers would prefer heavier trucks with lots of steel because there were seen as better for hauling heavy loads, but government promotion of resource conservation has helped customers accept materials that are lighter but still strong, he said.
A speaker from one of China's largest car companies, Wuhan-based DongFeng Motor Corp., said there is “still very big room for improvement” in use of engineering plastics in vehicles in the country, but said the company is adopting technologies like microcellular foam molding and sees a lot of value from plastics in weight-savings applications.
“In the past we have used foreign innovations,” said Yang Dan, director of automotive materials. “In the future we hope we can make our own innovation and have our own materials and own processes.”
Geely, one of China's largest privately owned auto makers, is using more plastics in bumpers, front-end modules, windows and other parts, and is working on using plastic and fiber-composite materials, said Liu Qiang, director of material engineering at the Geely Automobile Research Institute in Hangzhou, China.
“We have already put these products into our new vehicle designs,” Liu said. “The overall thinking has already formed to integrate lightweight technology.”
Some Chinese firms are working on advanced technology, like Chinese Tier 1 supplier Ningbo Huaxiang, which is developing high-pressure resin-transfer molding technology to try to economically mass-produce structural car parts with carbon-fiber composites.
“If you speak about [replacing] structural parts, you have to talk about carbon-fiber composites,” said Karsten Brast, general manager of Ningbo Huaxiang Automotive Research and Development Co. Ltd. in Ningbo and a former executive at European auto parts makers.
Steel accounts for about 60 percent of a German car, but most of that can be replaced by light-weight materials, he said.
But Huaxiang may be something of an exception. Chinese car companies are keen to replace metals with plastics, but are not so quick to take the next step and make existing plastic parts lighter with gas-assisted molding and other new technologies, said Tang Qinghua, director of Beijing Chn-top Machinery Co. Ltd., which makes microcellular foaming injection molding systems.
Several speakers suggested that China's car industry needs a business model with more cost-sharing of research and development to help it innovate, and many speakers said they were interested in much more collaboration across the supply chain.
But research in lightweighting technology can take years to be successful and it's not realistic for only one segment of the supply chain to bear the R&D risks, said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, vice president of automotive for Lyon, France-based materials supplier Rhodia.
As China's car industry grows in importance, it will take on a larger role in global development, said Steinmetz, who also is chairman of conference organizer APIMC.
“Tomorrow you are going to lead the automotive industry, which takes a different way to finance the development,” he told conference attendees. “Are you already taking that into view and making sure those projects are co-financed?”
Even if the plastics and auto industry engineers can solve those problems, they still face a larger hurdle that has little to do with plastics — cars have been getting much heavier over the last 30 years as consumers want larger and better-equipped vehicles.
The Volkswagen Golf in 1974 weighed about 1,650 pounds, for example, but today's Golf models weigh 2,800 pounds and up, Brast said in his presentation.
That's a trend that needs to reverse, particularly as the heavy batteries needed by electric cars will add even more weight, he said.