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.