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It’s not often that one theme gets repeated so frequently that it clearly is the topic de jour, but such was the case at last week’s “Plastics in automobile design” event in Mannheim, Germany. Most significant automotive trend? “The absolute weight of a car needs to drop. This is really high on the agenda,” said Franz Zängerl, manager for business development (automotive) at plastics supplier Borealis Group, in a statement echoed throughout the day.

Matt Defosse

March 30, 2009

3 Min Read
Plastics in automotive design: Weight reduction getting more than lip service

It’s not often that one theme gets repeated so frequently that it clearly is the topic de jour, but such was the case at last week’s “Plastics in automobile design” event in Mannheim, Germany. Most significant automotive trend? “The absolute weight of a car needs to drop. This is really high on the agenda,” said Franz Zängerl, manager for business development (automotive) at plastics supplier Borealis Group, in a statement echoed throughout the day. In fact, lightweighting trumped the perennial “lower the cost” mantra.

edaily_Mar31_-Corvette-Targa-Top.jpg

The optional targa top for this 2008 Corvette was molded of polycarbonate, with weight savings which are becoming increasingly important in automotive design.



Bas Blom, GM for automotive, Europe at plastics supplier SABIC Innovative Plastics (Bergen op Zoom, The Netherlands), agreed that weight savings, and ways plastics can help OEMs reduce their fleet’s weight, is the hottest topic at present. It touches on two themes—increasing fuel economy and reducing CO2 emissions—to which the industry’s OEMs long have paid lip service but to which they now need to pay closer attention, as failure to do so will cost them. The Obama administration in the U.S. has made clear that the support it offers its domestic carmakers is predicted largely on those companies’ promises to improve the fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness of their vehicles. Every kilogram of weight saved in a car reduces its CO2 emissions by 75mg/km.

For European OEMs the day of reckoning arrives soon, as last December the European Parliament voted to adopt a “Regulation on CO2 from cars” that will establish carbon dioxide limits and a system of fines for carmakers if their fleets don’t meet new CO2 emissions standards. The fleet average to be achieved by all cars registered in the European Union will be 130 grams/km. By 2012, 65% of each manufacturer's newly registered cars must comply on average with the legislation. This will rise to 75% in 2013, 80% in 2014, and 100% from 2015 onwards. If the average CO2 emissions of an OEM’s fleet exceed its limit value, the manufacturer has to pay an excess emissions premium, per each car registered, of €5 for the first g/km above the limit, €15 for the second g/km, €25 for the third g/km, and €95 for each subsequent g/km. This system of fines holds steady until 2019 when even the first g/km above the limit will cost €95/vehicle registered.

Reducing a vehicle’s weight is not a novel idea, nor are some of the ways being reconsidered for achieving this goal. Ralf Giesen, GM automotive business unit at Trocellen, says his company is seeing resurgence in interest in a well-established technology—sandwich constructions, using his firm’s polyolefin foams as the interior material. “Right now everyone is rediscovering lightweight construction—we’re in talks with Skoda, VW, all of them,” he says, noting also that foams based on PE or PP are lower cost than polyester foams. Looking ahead, he anticipates one day seeing his foam replace rubber as the backing in floor mats (the mat stretched across the entire car interior).

The annual “Plastics in automotive design” event, organized by the VDI, is a small but significant event on the automotive industry calendar. In years past almost 2000 representatives of Tier suppliers, OEMs, plastics suppliers, and manufacturers of machines and molds have made the trek to the event, which includes a micro-tradeshow in the foyer outside the hall where two days of presentations are made. This year the crowd was decidedly thinner but, at more than $1000/head for attendance at the conference, what else could one expect from cash-strapped carmakers and their suppliers? Besides, maybe thinner crowds make sense when weight savings is the main topic. —[email protected]

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