Novi, Mich. — Automakers and suppliers can pursue an array of advanced materials, processes and technologies to answer the automotive industry's challenges. But at Ford Motor Co., widespread implementation ultimately comes down to customer experience.
"We really want to focus on the customer," Cynthia Flanigan, Ford's chief engineer of vehicle research and technology, said during a morning keynote address at the Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition, an event jointly sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers' automotive and composites divisions, Sept. 4-6 in Novi.
Flanigan said it's about starting with the fundamentals in relation to customer needs and wants, but material choice and applications are also dependent on the type of vehicle — an F-150 pickup truck vs. a Bronco SUV, for example — as well as the use case.
Ford has been focusing on emerging materials such as the use of graphene with polyurethane foam, and aerogel, which is "the epitome of lightweight," Flanigan said. The automaker is also looking to nature for inspiration — mussel shells boast rigid surfaces that naturally repel bacteria and inhibit its growth, for example — as well as the opportunity for composites to improve noise, vibration and harshness in vehicle cabins.
"And what does the customer want?" Flanigan asked. "The customer probably doesn't care if it's aerogel. … What they care about is the experience that they're getting. They care that they can be in an environment that's seamless, that is potentially calming."
In terms of health and wellness, for example, Flanigan said the customer probably won't care about the technical story behind an antimicrobial solution. But they will care, however, about having a clean, durable and germ-free vehicle interior.
"It's an opportunity to have increased performance and an opportunity that's more seamless in their total journey," she said. "And so, for each of these cases, we need to look at what do we need to do to deliver that?"
Flanigan also highlighted five key areas that represent challenges and opportunities for the automotive industry: sustainability, emerging materials, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and advanced processes and design.
In terms of sustainability, Ford is paying attention to interior air quality; health and wellness; the impact of volatile organic compounds; and headline-grabbing issues such as ocean plastic, where it's projected that by 2050, there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish, Flanigan said.
The automaker is also pursuing leather alternatives, such as thermoplastic polyurethanes, primarily driven by changing consumer behaviors in the food industry as many lean toward plant-based or vegan lifestyles.
"And within these cases, this is a great opportunity for us to start thinking about how do we keep making solutions to make people's lives better?" Flanigan said. "How do we even advance further the development of sensors, filtration methods and also having connectivity to the external environment, so we can really think about tailoring this to specific needs?"
With artificial intelligence, Flanigan said she sees "huge opportunities" for composites, as it enables the automotive industry to design new materials, processes and analytical tools that weren't previously possible.
"It's definitely an opportunity for us to have more efficiency and to look for potentially new solutions that we wouldn't have revealed with conventional processes," she said. "I think we're at the cusp of a really exciting area to utilize a lot of these enabling technologies that are blooming."