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Interviews with a score of executives from around the plastics supplier universe at this week's "Plastics in automotive engineering" event made clear that, despite the tough knocks they have taken, all of their employers are continuing to pursue the automotive market with as much ardor as ever. The reason is clear.

Matt Defosse

March 18, 2010

3 Min Read
Plastics in automotive engineering: Holistic approach to saving weight in cars

Interviews with a score of executives from around the plastics supplier universe at this week's "Plastics in automotive engineering" event made clear that, despite the tough knocks they have taken, all of their employers are continuing to pursue the automotive market with as much ardor as ever. The reason is clear. Passenger cars built today in North America or Western Europe include, on average, about 140 kg of plastics per vehicle, and officials at BASF said they estimate that there remains at least another 160 kg of parts currently made with other materials that could eventually transition to plastics.

The annual event in Mannheim, Germany is organized by Germany's engineers' trade group, the VDI, and pulls in the crème de la crème of Europe's plastics processing crowd serving the automotive market. Even more, it draws designers, material specifiers, and manufacturing managers from the OEMs. The mini-exhibition on the fringe of the conference venue was packed as usual with leading suppliers to the market, including the aforementioned BASF, Dow Automotive, Borealis, LyondellBasell, ExxonMobil, Sabic Innovative Plastics, Lanxess, PolyOne, and more.

One trend mentioned on multiple occasions by supplier officials is a shift towards even stricter limits on emissions from plastic used in a car's interior. The 'new car smell' is destined for the big junkyard in the sky, said these officials. "We definitely see a trend to even stricter cabin air quality standards," said Eugenio Toccalino, the supplier's marketing manager, Europe for automotive.

Maybe the one overarching topic was the move to designing cars that are easier on the environment, either through lower weight and the correspondingly lower carbon dioxide emissions, increased use of plastics based on renewable resources, other moves, or in many cases a combination of all of them. At compounder PolyOne, Marcel Dartée, marketing director biomaterials, explained, "Sustainability is a trend at [automotive] OEMs—some faster, some slower, but all moving in that direction." His company played up sustainability in a major way at the event, displaying a number of parts molded from bioplastics or plastics based on renewable resource materials, and he said the number of such applications is growing rapidly. His job is made easier, he noted, as "all of the major plastics suppliers" are working on development of such materials, enabling PolyOne to pluck from the growing bunch of bioplastics those it feels can offer the most, via PolyOne's compounds, to its customers.

Important to note, added Dartée, is that using bioplastics and making money need not be at opposite ends of the spectrum. "Many still think bioplastics have to be a tradeoff," he explained, "but we're seeing that's not the case." He noted that thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) derived from renewable resource materials often offer better characteristics than strictly petroleum-based TPEs, especially in terms of oil resistance and long-term ability to hold their shape without swelling.          

More of the new materials and applications discussed at the event will appear in stories in NewsFeed in the coming days. —Matt Defosse

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