DETROIT — Increased use of plastics in automotive applications has been on a decades-long and incremental journey of greater acceptance.
With new applications that continually challenge the use of metals in vehicles, plastics now consist of about 50 percent of the volume of a typical vehicle, said Frank Macher, chairman and CEO of Continental Structural Plastics Inc. of Auburn Hills, Mich.
And Macher said he believes there will be a continued increase in use of plastics — both alone and in conjunction with other materials — as vehicles makers continue to push for lighter weights.
The reason is simple: federal mileage standards, which are slated to rise to 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.
Car makers see lighter weight vehicles as one way to help boost fuel mileage. That's because a 10-percent weight savings can translate into a 6 to 8 percent increase in fuel economy, Macher said.
“It's an irreversible mandate that cars get lighter and cars get more efficient,” he said. “The important thing is that we will never go backwards and lightweighting will continue to be extremely important.”
“Lightweighting will become one of the major aspects of fuel economy in the
future,” said Macher, who has spent 45 years in the automotive industry, including top spots at Federal-Mogul Corp., Collins & Aikman and ITT Automotive.
Along with using parts made only of plastics, Macher said, future solutions also will include use of plastics in conjunction with other materials such as metals and glass.
“The future is challenging and I'm very, very confident that the plastic industry is in the best position it has been in many years to sees applications in the automotive industry come to fruition,” said Macher, who also spent 30 years at Ford Motor Co., where he held several executive positions.
But continued progress in lightweighting will come incrementally over time. It's not going to be a Thomas Edison's lightbulb moment that changed the world, he said Jan. 14 during the Plastics In Automotive conference organized by Plastics News in Detroit.
Plastics also face competition in lightweighting as metals such as aluminum, manganese and even new types of steel are all looking to grab their share of new vehicle components, Macher said.
Plastics, over the years, has had to earn its stripes in automotive applications, the CEO said, as post-World War 2 plastic consumer goods helped create a reputation for plastic to be a cheap, breakable and disposable commodity.
“A good part had to be made from steel, aluminum, stamped die cast and in many cases in those days chrome plated,” he said about the perception decades ago.
But not anymore. These days, the average vehicle has more than 2,000 plastic or composite parts, he said.
While plastics make up about 50 percent of the volume of a typical vehicle, the material only accounts for about 10 percent of the weight. This has allowed vehicles to become more sophisticated — think electronics, accessories, safety features — over time without dramatically increasing the overall weight.
“There are a number of things that are happening in the future that will create even more applications,” he said.