Plastics use in vehicles to grow 75% by 2020, says industry watcher

By 2020, the average car will incorporate nearly 350 kg of plastics, up from 200 kg in 2014, according to analyst IHS Chemical (Englewood CO). Meanwhile, the market for carbon fiber in car manufacturing is expected to nearly triple in the coming years. Usage of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing will increase to 9,800 tonnes in 2030, up from 3,400 tonnes in 2013. These predictions are made in a report titled, "Weight Reduction in Automotive Design & Manufacture."

 

Carbon fiber usage is set to grow substantially in the auto sector according to IHS Chemical.

Cars represent a fast-growing market for the chemicals industry according to IHS, with global car shipments expected to nearly double over the next 17 years, rising to 104.1 million units in 2020, up from 56.9 million vehicles in 2003 based on information from IHS Automotive. The majority of the growth will be propelled by the fast-expanding Chinese market.

From a practical perspective, automakers are adopting new materials in order to reduce the weight of their vehicles to comply with government regulations says HIS Chemical. In the United States, for example, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards mandate that carmakers' passenger vehicle fleets average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. To meet U.S. and European objectives for greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 and 2025, car road loads must be reduced by 30 percent, according to an estimate from IHS Automotive. This reduction will be required in addition to large-scale adoption of advanced engine, transmission, and hybrid technologies. The use of carbon fiber and polymer matrix composites are believed to enable car body-weight reductions of 25 percent to 70 percent.

For the most part, mainstream automakers will employ traditional metalworking approaches to weight reduction according to HIS as these offer a cost-effective application of known competencies, secure supply chains, and, most importantly, existing capital equipment. However, manufacturers may adopt more radical approaches, extensively employing plastics or composites.

The plastics industry has for some time tried to replace all the glass used in cars with polycarbonate (PC). This effort is well underway, with almost every vehicle on the road today having a PC headlamp and a PC/PMMA rear lamp. The next target for PC suppliers is car windows. While a limited number of vehicles have switched from conventional glass windows to ones using PC glazing, cost and regulation issues have limited the proliferation of this material.

However, the use of PC in windows could allow for greater innovation than now possible with glass says IHS Chemical. For example, components can be integrated into the glass, enabling carmakers to produce entirely new designs. The window/light/tailgate could now be integrated together, offering a great design prospect in terms of style and lines of the car with the overall price also providing a major weight savings over the standard construction method.

With car glass and interiors already having adopted plastics and composites, the auto industry now is turning things inside out-looking at ways to use these materials in body panels. This is leading to some ingenious developments.

Carbon fiber has long been used to manufacture the highest-end race cars. However, this technology is now being employed to reduce the weight of standard vehicles by producing body panels from carbon fiber, a process already commercialized by leading automotive supplier Magna International Inc. These include Class A exterior panels, like door panels, fascia and hoods. Even so, the cost of carbon fiber remains a high-cost option, limiting its usage.

For its part, the chemical industry has come up with an answer to the cost issue: a hybrid of foam, plastic, and fiber composites. Using standard plastics extruded with glass fibers and sandwiched with structural foams, the industry can now reproduce these Class A surfaces at a greatly reduced weight of metals and cost of carbon, while still maintaining the structural integrity.  One such system launched at the K 2013 plastics trade fair by Bayer Material Science. The use of carbon fiber and polymer matrix composites is believed to enable body-weight reductions of 25 percent to 70 percent at "affordable" prices.

BASF has become a frontrunner in this lightweight revolution, developing solutions to impregnate fibers with resins and then over mold with plastics to produce lightweight structural components. This material is already being adopted in everyday vehicles. For example, the system is readily employed by Opal in some of its mass-production vehicles. Today the technology is allowing the replacement of some auto parts with plastic composites. By 2020, IHS expects these plastics to enable not just wholesale structural changes but also completely new vehicle designs and concepts.

 

Supply chain risks create roadblocks

While these new materials hold great promise in the automotive industry, there are some major potential risks in the supply chain. Makers of composites and advanced plastics operate in a restricted supply base that required considerable effort and expense needed for new suppliers to enter. Furthermore, product performance reliability and reproducibility is vital, which can be a challenge for producers in developing economies. Although margins are medium to high, manufacturing costs are impacted by crude oil via energy and raw materials.

With a small supply base subject to quality and raw materials issues, the availability of these materials is also susceptible to disruptions. For example, in 2011 a fire and explosion at a plant operated by Evonik Industries AG caused a cessation in the world's supply of polyamide (PA) 12, commonly used in automotive applications. It took nearly two years for Evonik to regain its volume of PA 12. Automotive companies sourcing these materials must develop strategic procurement strategies to account for conditions throughout the supply chain.

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