Shanghai — China's auto industry needs to improve efforts to make cars lighter using more plastic components, according to an executive at a Tier 1 supplier.
“Most Chinese vehicles weigh more than any other vehicle on a size basis,” said Rose Ryntz, vice president of advanced engineering and material development at International Automotive Components Group.
With 75 percent of fuel consumption directly related to vehicle weight, that average weight of cars in China needs to be cut by more than 350 pounds, she said.
Ryntz spoke at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive TPO Engineered Polyolefins Global Conference, held March 21-24 in Shanghai. She and other speakers discussed trends that are affecting how plastics are used in cars.
A focus of her talk was on lightweighting, an area where China needs to improve. Much of the weight of cars comes from electronic and safety components, she said, and hybrid powertrains typically add 9 percent to vehicle weight.
Currently plastics make up only 10 percent of a car's weight on average across the globe, but the goal is to reach 18-20 percent by 2025.
“The way we're going to increase it is by increasing the volume of plastics and the only way you can do that is by replacing metal,” she explained.
Speaker Ken Gassman, from interiors Tier 1 supplier Inteva Products LLC, highlighted thermoplastic polyolefins as an ideal plastic to use for lightweighting, citing 20 to 25 percent weight savings with TPO. “There's no surprise that TPO has taken hold in the industry,” he said, citing its stability and recyclability.
“PVC has been out there for upwards of 30 years,” he said. “It's a mature technology. TPO has been out there for upwards of 12 years. What I'm seeing is industry is driving price down.”
Parts made by PVC slush molding are one of the lowest-cost offerings, he added. “I'm seeing the difference between PVC and TPO narrowing,” he said.
Ryntz spoke of the interest in using natural fibers as a plastics filler to boost lightweighting efforts. “As a whole, people are looking at what they [can] do with cotton, with coconut fibers, with tomato peels. There are rice hull natural fillers. Any natural resource that can be made into a filler that is acceptable,” she said.
Ryntz spoke of the importance of localizing, so that regional natural materials are used in different production locations.
“If you can get that transportation cost out of it, that certainly is a [viable] application. China could develop a lot of those natural resources and get natural filled products inexpensively.”
Car preferences are different between North America and China as well, Ryntz noted. Americans' preferences for larger cars mean that “North America makes all its profits on SUVs and light trucks,” she said. But in China, cars are smaller.
“They retain their profitability because of a knowledge base when they develop technology [that] they take across programs, and because of that they don't make profits on large vehicles. Small vehicles they know how to implement technology across that small vehicle line. 2016 is the first year that China is going to surpass North America in vehicle production.
“It's endless. It's absolutely endless,” she said, referring to the limits to how much plastic could be used in cars. “But it is going to be predicated on the price of oil. If I can get 50 percent of the plastic out, then I'm not as dependent on oil costs. Plastics inherently has more design freedom.
“I think China can do that because a lot of the companies here are joint ventures between the Chinese and the U.S. so I think that it's the case of North America or U.S. bringing the technology or some of the technology, but I think China can leapfrog that because of the skilled labor force. So you can take that as a basis and continue to improve it,” she said.