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Market Snapshot: Automotive exteriors 16151

Automakers have to improve MPG values. Plastics, again, become a valuable ally. Not unlike Wall Street’s turmoils, the automotive industry’s current troubles are said to stem from two sources—its own free-spirited profit-taking during boom years past, and crises in oil and credit markets beyond its control today. Industry leaders in North America are challenged to provide what consumers want as those desires shift, and are working toward what they hope is a brighter future by developing products meant to ensure that positive outcome.

5 Min Read
Market Snapshot: Automotive exteriors

Automakers have to improve MPG values. Plastics, again, become a valuable ally.

Not unlike Wall Street’s turmoils, the automotive industry’s current troubles are said to stem from two sources—its own free-spirited profit-taking during boom years past, and crises in oil and credit markets beyond its control today. Industry leaders in North America are challenged to provide what consumers want as those desires shift, and are working toward what they hope is a brighter future by developing products meant to ensure that positive outcome.

? Ford released the Kuga, a midsize crossover utility vehicle for the European market, at this year’s Geneva Auto Show. It features front fenders molded from Noryl GTX resin, and also represents the first time Ford is using this material on a vehicle exterior. ?The small-car segment, including new imports to the U.S. market such as the Smart Fortwo, was the only category to post sales gains during 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. ??Automotive suppliers have had a rough year as domestic and global automotive industry restructuring continues. Data from PricewaterhouseCoopers show the effects on the largest automotive tier suppliers. Web extra

Industry dynamics

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (www.pwc.com) Global Automotive Perspectives 2008 report, signs of a structural North American market shift appeared early in 2007, as elevated oil prices cut consumer spending. Crumbling housing and credit markets hurt monthly sales in the second half of 2007, as Chrysler was acquired by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP.

During the first six months of 2008, small cars were the only segment to post gains, compared with 2007. The report further forecasts that 2008 assembly figures will fall below 14 million units for the first time since 1993, and adds that the market is expected to recover and expand to 15.9 million units by 2012 as more fuel-efficient crossovers and small cars hit the showroom floor.

PwC’s estimates are based on the assumption that $4/gal gasoline, mixed with political, social, and economic factors, will drive dramatic industry change. Moreover, analysts believe the recently passed increased fuel economy standards should sustain this shift. (New CAFE regulations require a fleet average fuel economy of 35 mpg by 2020, up from 22.2 mpg in 2007.)

How will automakers reach the target? PwC’s report focuses on efforts currently under way to reduce the weight and size of both vehicle and engine. It further predicts OEMs will need supplier assistance to achieve these goals.

In the case of automotive exteriors, suppliers have an enormous opportunity to meet customer needs by helping carmakers convert from metal to plastic or from glass to polycarbonate. Plastic fenders, windows, door panels, and more have the potential to remove up to 50% of the weight of traditional components, helping to boost fuel economy.

Exterior opportunities

IMM spoke recently with Derek Buckmaster, global market director, Body Panels & Glazing at Sabic Innovative Plastics (www.sabic-ip.com), who indicated that the key technology focus for exterior body panel materials today remains unchanged. “We’re looking at methods for reducing the coefficient of thermal expansion of exterior polymer materials, a request that came from OEMs when they began switching to plastic fenders years ago.”

A lower CTE value helps in designing for narrower gaps, especially in the area where fender panels meet headlamps. Sabic IP recently launched Noryl GTX 977, which features a 25% improvement in CTE. A number of OEMs and Tier One suppliers are trialing the material, and in some cases, conducting impact testing trials. Production vehicles may sport the new material as early as 2011.

Another possibility is a product Sabic IP is developing with Azdel called Ixis, a continuous glass-fiber-reinforced sheet formed via compression molding. With a CTE almost identical to aluminum, Ixis has the potential to replace even load-bearing horizontal panels.

Buckmaster also reported that this year, the first of the major global automotive OEMs have completed their specs for polycarbonate glazing. “We are working with material teams inside the OEMs to create a material spec or engineering spec for polycarbonate glazing parts provided by Tier One suppliers, who find it hard to justify an investment in materials and equipment unless these are in place. We’re working on programs for 2011 and 2012 vehicles, and have active programs with 15 carmakers around the world.”

PC glazing represents a new automotive opportunity for plastics processors. For OEMs, the switch to PC windows helps reduce weight (50% reduction vs. glass). What’s even more important is that the upper part of the vehicle, where the windows are, will be lighter. This lowers the center of gravity on the vehicle for greater safety and better fuel efficiency. From a design point of view, PC windows are better because they can include molded-in seals and other overmolded features.

Nano fillers also hold potential for injection molded composites, according to Buckmaster. He cites as an example the 2008 Toyota Tundra Double Cab model, whose rear door handle is molded from Xenoy resin with nanofillers. He adds that spoilers, appliqués, and trim strips are other potential applications. “This material works well for components painted offline or inline, rather than being exposed to online paint-curing ovens. In Europe, spoilers on lift gates are becoming long, deep plastic parts, and these are prime candidates for nano-filled polymers.”

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