Novi, Mich. — Along the winding road of current and future automotive trends, there is an opportunity. And that opportunity, mixed into mega trends like electrification, lightweighting and connectivity, is for composites to become more broadly accepted in interior and exterior applications for next-generation vehicles.
But for that to happen, it's going to take partnerships and collaboration, according to panelists at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition.
"There are about 30,000 parts in a vehicle today, and of the 30,000 about 10,000 are plastic," said Jud Gibson, vice president of commercial Americas at DSM Engineering Plastics Inc., during the Sept. 5 panel discussion. "The one thing that we're seeing with composites and the push for lightweighting is that we're nowhere near entitlement if you think about our industry, and we have a long way to go."
The panel included Paul Platte, senior marketing manager for automotive and transportation at Covestro LLC, and Jeffrey Helms, global automotive sales director of engineered materials at Celanese Corp.
"The only way that we're all going to be successful is to continue to develop partnerships and alliances to fully understand the value chain so that we can bring award-winning solutions at a competitive cost advantage to our customers," Gibson said.
Proper data modeling techniques and data characterization, including improvements with simulation capabilities, are also necessary for a wider adoption of composites and establishing more trust in a new material or application, according to Covestro's Platte.
"You're going to need to be able to analyze the components to meet engineering performance requirements," he said. "It's on us to be able to characterize and analyze the materials appropriately."
Traditionally with composites, the conversation has been around strength and stiffness as well as lightweighting and cost reduction, Platte said. But when he considers where vehicle design is headed — think electrification, a sharper focus on interiors and an array of interpretations of the user experience — composites can take on challenges in form and function.
"Whether these aesthetics are coming from things like seamless surfaces, slim profiles or curved displays, colors or textures, ambient lighting, they're all enabled by composite and noncomposite technologies," said Platte, highlighting options such as continuous carbon-fiber-reinforced or thermally conductive materials.
From a materials science perspective, specifically, broad use of composites in automotive applications is going to be data-driven, Helms explained.
Investment and infrastructure also play a crucial role in bringing composite solutions to the market, Gibson said.
"We all talk about it, but we need to be involved upfront in the design cycle to help with new applications and bringing innovation to customers," he said.
Helms said about 64 percent of what he sees in composites from nominated parts for SPE's annual Automotive Innovation Awards involve lightweighting. And of those parts, 58 percent also achieve a cost reduction.
During a Sept. 7 keynote at the event, Helms spoke again of the relationship.
"We see this [at the innovation awards] year over year over year: lightweighting and cost reduction. And those two things are actually mutually inclusive," he told the audience. "Integrating plastics and composites can really move this needle, I think, more than anything else."