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Zhang Xue, an industrial design student at TongJi University and winner of the 2008 Sabic Innovative Plastics Car Design contest in China, created a concept car called the Cicada. It is a tandem two-seater, 3D virtual model of a 'green-connected' urban vehicle, and relies heavily on plastics for visibility and design freedom.

Michelle Maniscalco

September 11, 2008

23 Min Read
Ready...set...merge: Automotive market hits the global highway


Zhang Xue, an industrial design student at TongJi University and winner of the 2008 Sabic Innovative Plastics Car Design contest in China, created a concept car called the Cicada. It is a tandem two-seater, 3D virtual model of a 'green-connected' urban vehicle, and relies heavily on plastics for visibility and design freedom.


The Netherlands Society for Nature & Environment and three Dutch technical universities (Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente) presented the concept car “c,mm,n” at AutoRAI 2007. It was billed as the first open-source car in the world, because all technologies developed to create cleaner, quieter, and more economical transportation on the c,mm,n (think, common) platform will be shared with the rest of the world. Sabic IP provided recycled PET (Xenoy iQ) for exterior body panels.


Door panels for Iveco’s new Eurocargo truck are molded from LyondellBasell’s Softell polypropylene compound. Compared with painted ABS, the unpainted PP parts save up to 40% over the systems cost for the doors.



Exatec, now wholly owned by Sabic Innovative Plastics, is investing in process development for large panoramic roof systems molded from polycarbonate. At left, an Engel Duo two-shot 2300-metric-ton press at the Wixom, MI headquarters molds a fixed backlite and colored surround using a stack mold in an injection-compression process. At right, a robot dispenses defroster lines from a system built and designed by Exatec.br>

In July 2008, Mercedes sold 2559 smart fortwo vehicles. Formerly sold only in Europe, the gas-saving fortwo arrived in the U.S. last September.


Headlamp assemblies used to be a mixture of glass, metal, and thermoset plastic. Today’s headlamps are composed entirely of engineering thermoplastics. Toyota’s adaptive headlamp, shown here, contains bezels molded of PBT (Celanex) from Ticona.


The 2004 Opel Zafira was the first to use a PA/ABS (Terblend N from BASF) blend for an internal roof box 1.8m long. It adds a row of storage compartments to the panorama roof without requiring painting or coating to reduce production costs. The material has high flow to fill the long part, and reproduces the small graining details required to produce a matte surface.


BayVision is Bayer MaterialScience’s new brand of glazing materials and technology based on its Makrolon polycarbonate. The first vehicle to bear the BayVision logo is Hyundai’s i-mode concept car unveiled at the 2008 Geneva Auto Show and equipped with a total of 11 glazing components. PC roof systems reduce weight by about 50% and lower a vehicle’s center of gravity for greater safety.

Yes, automotive molding has taken a big hit in the U.S., but globally, it’s a different race. And just around the next hairpin turn are new plastics-related technologies promising to meet the challenges of suppliers and OEMs alike.—Michelle Maniscalco

Who knew that this year would be the birth of the current recessionary crisis in the automotive industry? For the U.S. Big Three, the Japanese Big Three (Toyota, Honda, Nissan), the German Big Three (BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz), and even major investors like Kirk Kerkorian (Ford), the future looked somewhat stable, if not exciting, in Q1 2008. Only J.D. Power & Assoc. (Westlake Village, CA) launched a negative test balloon, downgrading its earlier estimates in March based on the rise in oil prices and global credit instability.

Fast-forward a few months to current industry status, in which both American and Asian automakers are feeling the pain. Toyota, while overtaking GM as the largest global automaker earlier this year, recently reduced its workforce in Japan by 10% after posting an 11.9% drop in July. Honda sales that month fell by 1.6%, even though it was expecting a gain. Nissan alone posted a gain of 8.5% on the strength of its truck and compact car sales, while Hyundai (Korea) dropped 6.5%.

The American picture worsened significantly by comparison. GM’s light-vehicle sales were down 26% in July, Ford posted a 14.9% decline, and Chrysler was last to the finish line with a 28.8% drop.

German OEMs fared better than their global counterparts by a fairly wide margin in terms of U.S. sales. Volkswagen’s numbers rose by 4% in July, BMW posted a 2.2% gain, and Mercedes unit sales climbed 11%. Mercedes also reported that it sold 2559 smart cars that month, which were not available in the United States in July 2007.

Take a trip down south

Automotive molding suppliers from top tier integrators to parts suppliers have borne the brunt of this year’s downward trend, and not without offering up casualties. Delphi Packard Electric closed its older Cortland, OH plant in favor of its new $58 million plant in Vienna, OH at the end of July, citing a drop in orders. Ford supplier Plastech, after filing for bankruptcy in February, was purchased by Johnson Controls Inc., which recently shut down a former Plastech plant in Franklin, TN.

Conversely, new opportunities have opened up in areas far south of Detroit. The South has emerged as an automotive powerhouse for suppliers, in a corridor that encompasses U.S., Japanese, German, and Korean OEM facilities. In the Carolinas, for example, there are 14 automotive OEMs located within a one-day drive.

Industry watchers credit the emergence of the southern auto corridor to several factors in the southern region: low unionization and wages, strong transportation infrastructure, substantial incentives and tax breaks, lower cost of energy, and a stable workforce. More than 5000 automotive-related manufacturing plants are located on this corridor.

The J.D. Power prediction<

For an accurate forecast of the global market, many industry execs turn to the gurus at J.D. Power & Assoc. Perhaps best known for its ongoing auto dependability ratings, it was the first market information firm to foresee this year’s downturn in automotive. Recently, its executive director for automotive intelligence Jeff Schuster told a group of ExxonMobil customers that a return to the global production volumes of 2007 should happen within the next three years. The difference, Schuster cautioned, is that emerging markets will outperform mature markets on a percentage basis.

Other predictions shed light on the probable outcome for the next few years:

• By 2014, the top 15 emerging countries will consume 35 million vehicles, while Europe, Japan, and U.S. markets together will account for 48 million.
• In North America, sales will remain relatively flat, climbing up to 15 million units by 2012.
• Truck plants are converting to small-car production, and the next 18 months are critical for Detroit brands. They may be reacting too quickly. It depends on how flexible the plants will be in terms of the types of vehicles they can produce.
• Asian brands are not immune to what is happening. Toyota, for instance, is posting negative numbers for the first time in memory.
• Most likely scenario for light vehicle sales in the U.S: 13.8 million-14.3 million units in 2008. The market lost 2 million units of retail sales over the last five years. Next year’s forecast is 13.5 million-14.7 million, reflecting the loss of fleet buying.
• The BRIC nations represent emerging markets (Brazil, Russia, India, China) in which U.S. OEMs are expanding their presence.
• Growth curve for China is steep this year, although lower than in previous years, at 9.7%.
• Russian sales are high because of the oil boom.
• Brazil has quietly gone back to the strong growth expected.
• Top countries for production in 2015 in order of volume: China, Japan, United States, Germany, India, Korea, France.
• Hyundai and Renault Nissan are growing at levels almost double the industry average.
• Estimated global production growth by 2012: Asia 60%, North America 1%, Europe 26%, South America 7%.
• By 2012, all 46 Chinese manufacturers combined will equal the production of Toyota.

Material suppliers stepping up

With the turmoil surrounding automotive OEMs and suppliers, major resin makers and compounders around the globe have done a bit of soul-searching. Rather than invent products that might be of use to the automotive market, the focus has changed to close collaboration with customers to create ways to take out cost and weight.

Scott Israelson, automotive market development manager for ExxonMobil Specialty Elastomers, believes that while outside dynamics are beyond his control, the fundamental aim of resin makers is to enable customers to compete through cost savings and weight reduction. “For every 10% reduction in weight, there is a 7% improvement in fuel economy,” he says. “So for each pound of polymer we put on a vehicle, we are usually replacing 2 or 3 lb of something else. This drives cost savings and fuel economy improvements.”

ExxonMobil just introduced several fast-cycle grades designed to help customers with thick parts—plugs, bumpers, and so on. They process up to 30% faster than any other fast-cycle TPE on the market, according to Israelson. “When EPDM rubber is replaced with TPE, there are reductions in price and weight—typically about 20% less weight and the opportunity to reduce wall thickness for a total savings of 40-55%,” he says.

Toyota is one OEM that has completely replaced rubber with TPE. Its 2007 Avalon, for instance, includes a clean air duct and resonator now molded from an ExxonMobil elastomer rather than EPDM rubber.

“Growth in applications is increasing even though the overall market is down,” he adds. “Engineering thermoplastics solve problems, and while it used to take a long time to qualify a part, that is not the case anymore. OEMs need lighter-weight alternatives now. There’s a hunger for innovation both on technical and aesthetic parts.”

Within ExxonMobil’s portfolio, materials ranging from Santoprene TPE to Exxtral polypropylene have found applications in vehicle exteriors and interiors. “We’ve determined that we can supply more than 200 lb of material per vehicle, replacing 600 lb of alternative materials and reducing fuel economy by 8%,” Israelson says. “The impact is huge. There are opportunities also for cost reductions and systems improvements.”

Given the July sales figures, gasoline near $4/gal, and the increases in steel, aluminum, and polymer prices, the automotive industry can’t seem to catch a break. Dave Mitchell, global market manager of transportation for thermoplastic applications for Dow Elastomers, told IMM that innovation is the key.

“Clearly there are numerous forces that are exerting negative pressures on the automotive industry. Given the current increase in global demand for steel, aluminum, plastic, and hydrocarbon feedstocks, I do not anticipate that we will see a change in this trend in the near future. Therefore, it is going to become more and more imperative for the auto industry to innovate with new products designed to offset these current trends.”

Trend watcher

While the global automotive industry has contracted, new ideas and trends continue to emerge unabated. In February, for example, Sabic Innovative Plastics delivered its annual Auto Trend Watch presentation to customers, complete with market insights, research, and design trends. Its choices this year for top technologies and styles included double-curved glazing, white and deep gloss black exteriors, and wraparound-style exterior body panels with more functions than previous versions.

The automotive design team at Sabic IP that makes the call says it draws on live research at key motor shows (Geneva, Tokyo, Detroit, etc.), hands-on design experience, dialogue with OEMs and designers, and “continuous monitoring of conferences, literature, and the media.”

Geert Jan Schelle?kens, principal automotive designer at Sabic IP, says, “We also rely on our own knowledge, experience, and special ‘antennae’ for design trends. The challenges today’s designers are facing include cost pressure, weight reduction, environmentally responsible design, and, of course, styling/engineering innovation. Thermoplastics offer a combination of design freedom and functional integration in the broadest sense. If executed well, the consolidation of several components into one will lead to weight savings as well as assembly cost reduction. With the right materials we can also imagine replacing painting operations with inmolded colors and effects or inmold decoration technology, offering ecologically sensible alternatives.”

Double-curved glazing has become a focus area for designers as the replacement of glass with polycarbonate has grown from concept to reality. In addition to a 50% weight reduction for areas such as panoramic roofs, molded glazing also enables designers to incorporate 3D to enhance aesthetics and allow functional integration. Schellekens says that double-curved glazing has been used in some production cars since the late ‘90s, but has remained a niche application until recently. “Today, we see this enabling technology in stunning concepts such as the Hyundai QarmaQ and Chevrolet Volt. Applications also include integrated spoilers and lighting functionality in a tailgate, and ‘double bubble’ styling shapes in the panoramic roof of a sports car,” he adds.

Body panel integration can be seen in a number of production cars that feature air outlets in the front fenders, typically between the front wheel arch and the door. While these outlet shapes would be hard to achieve in metal, according to Schellekens, fine integrated details inside the outlets would be impossible in metal or thermosets. “Thermoplastics alone offer the design freedom needed,” he says. Headlamps have also become total engineering thermoplastic assemblies, as glass lenses, thermoset housings, and aluminum reflectors and bezels have been replaced with plastics. Schellekens predicts these complex components may be reconfigured to include the air intake function.

Wondering what interior automotive colors will be popular in the near future? Schellekens’ team sees glossy, high-contrast blacks and whites in concept car interiors.

Plastic bumpers reduce appetite for fuel

Dow Elastomers (Midland, MI) is a leading supplier of both polyolefin elastomers (Engage) and hydrocarbon rubbers (Nordel). According to Dave Mitchell, global market manager of transportation for thermoplastic applications for Dow Elastomers, these products have enabled the industry to convert many steel automotive parts to elastomeric alternatives to reduce the overall weight of an automobile and increase its fuel efficiency.

As an example, Mitchell cites the switch from metal to plastic (polyolefin) bumpers, reducing the weight by roughly 10 lb/vehicle. According to standard auto industry data, a 50-lb weight reduction yields a 1% increase in fuel economy. So the bumper switch alone produces 0.2% improvement in mpg.

Mitchell adds that Dow Elastomers is currently developing the next generation of products, which will be available in early 2009 for sampling, specifically designed for improved performance and cost effectiveness.

Five big differences in today’s automotive industry

Did you ever have an “opposite day” at school or at home? Children often love this exercise because they can walk backwards, put their shoes on their hands, and say the opposite of what they mean. The automotive industry appears to be having an “opposite year,” and they’re not enjoying it half as much. Here are a few of the factors that have been rearranged:

1. In Q1 2008, Toyota eclipsed General Motors as the top auto manufacturer for the first time, selling 2.41 million cars and light trucks worldwide to GM’s 2.25 million. As of the midyear mark, ?Toyota was still ahead of GM by 280,000 vehicles.

2. While auto suppliers and OEMs are downsizing in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, growth is burgeoning in southeastern states such as North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

3. Emerging auto markets such as Brazil, Russia, China, and India are expected to grow by 50% over the next seven years. ?Mature markets such as the United States, Europe, and Japan are forecast to remain relatively flat.

4. It used to take months, if not years, to get a new material? specified at one of the U.S. Big Three automakers. ExxonMobil reports that this is no longer the case. Why? Because there is a “hunger for innovation” and cost/weight savings.

5. Thanks to $4/gal gas, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks are no longer the consumer darlings they used to be, with sales down at every OEM except Nissan in July. ?Automakers are retooling to produce small sedans and subcompact cars that sip, rather than guzzle, gasoline.

EDI innovation: It’s huge

At ERP systems developer IQMS, the automotive industry merits its own ERP solution tailored to meet challenges such as fluctuating demand, industry standards, and compliance requirements. Tier suppliers also rely on the system’s EDI (electronic data interchange) processing, a fully automated and integrated module, as well as its wireless warehouse management and labeling features.

Called EnterpriseIQ, it is one of the only systems fully approved by Honda to meet the ?automaker’s stringent EDI requirements in multiple functional areas. ?Customers also rely on it to achieve Tier One certification for all major ?automotive manufacturers, including Toyota and Chrysler.

Randy Flamm, IQMS president, told IMM in a recent phone interview, “We haven’t seen a downturn in demand, because our customers are ?getting their houses in order as production slows. They realize that in this environment, they have to innovate. And the customers who work for Asian suppliers are running up to capacity.

“We’re finding that EDI is huge in the industry. That’s where demand comes from. When purchase orders come through, they are propagated ?automatically throughout the system to all of the links in the supply chain.”

Another reason for the rise in in-house EDI is a trend away from using value-added networks (VANs) by major OEMs. Chrysler, for instance, used to send its purchase orders to the VAN, and then suppliers would have to subscribe to it in order to receive orders. This system is waning, however.

How does the automated EDI system within EnterpriseIQ work? Here is Flamm’s explanation:

• When demand occurs at the OEM level, purchase orders (POs) are placed for parts or subassemblies, and the file shows up in a secure FTP folder on the supplier’s computer system.
• The system scans for orders continually. When it finds one, it sends it to the EDI application, which identifies what products need to be shipped out at what time and in what sequence. This data is updated in the sales system.
• Next, the software does an MRP run, deciding how much material and which other components must be ordered from suppliers in order to produce goods to fill the PO. EDI purchase orders are sent out automatically.
• Production is alerted to begin when all needed items are in-house.
• Overall, direct labor falls and compliance goes up as errors go down.
• As parts are produced, they are labeled automatically by the IQMS system. Labels are affixed to the shipping box.
• The IQMS system scans labels as the boxes are being shrink-wrapped, and puts the parts into inventory digitally.
• Trucks pick up the boxes and scan the label, which tells the driver where to deliver. An ASN (advanced shipping notice) EDI file is automatically generated and sent when the truck door closes. Says Flamm, “This is as close to real-time tracking as you can get without GPS.”

OEMs located within a one-day drive of the Carolinas

1. General Motors (Saturn)—Spring Hill, TN
2. Nissan—Smyrna, TN
3. Mercedes—Vance, AL
4. Honda—Lincoln, AL
5. General Motors—Doraville, GA
6. Ford—Hapeville, GA
7. Nissan—Canton, MS
8. General Motors—Bowling Green, KY
9. Toyota—Georgetown, KY
10. Ford—Louisville, KY
11. BMW—Greer, SC
12. Ford—Norfolk, VA
13. General Motors—Baltimore, MD
14. Hyundai—Montgomery, AL

Source: Duke Energy, Charlotte, NC

Contact Information

Dow Elastomers | www.dow.com ExxonMobil Specialty Elastomers | www.exxonmobilchemical.com IQMS | www.iqms.com J.D. Power & Assoc. | www.jdpower.com Sabic Innovative Plastics | www.sabic-ip.com

Web-exclusive: Advances in Automotive Molding


Manufactured using MSW Technology, this interior trim component saved up to 30% in material costs.


The red core material is encapsulated by the transparent skin material in this demonstration part.


Ultrarepeatable, Toshiba's big, new ED Series hybrid machines provide considerable cycle time savings, but considerably more savings in energy consumption.

A major European carmaker uses Battenfeld's Aquamould water-injection process to manufacture stronger, lighter-weight, hollowed-out clutch petals made of glass-filled nylon.

A water-injection system like Battenfeld's Aquamould is a single-step solution for producing strong, weight-saving, complex parts.


Ferromatik Milacron: Monosandwich

What it is: Monosandwich (MSW) technology is a variation of multicomponent molding technology engineered to simplify more conventional coinjection molding to facilitate the production of parts consisting of different core and skin materials.

How it works: As soon as the core material is plasticated in the primary injection unit, a secondary extruder introduces the skin material directly into the barrel of the primary injection unit. Now situated behind each other in the injection unit, the two melt components are simultaneously injected into the mold cavity, as in conventional single-shot molding. The core material flows through the middle of the flow channel, while the skin component is uniformly deposited on the cavity's wall.

Benefits: The biggest benefit provided by MSW technology is that it offers the possibility of up to a 30% reduction in materials costs. Recycled material can be used for the core, and virgin material can be used for the skin in order to produce lower-cost parts with perfect, unblemished surfaces.

What's more, MSW can easily improve the performance properties of an automotive component. A fiber-reinforced core material compound can be given an easy-to-grip, soft-touch skin, for instance. Other possible material combinations can include such performance-enhanced features as vibration- or sound-absorbing properties.

Yet another benefit of the technology is its simplicity. Since it uses but a single injection stroke, there's no chance of process control errors occurring when switching from skin to core, as can happen when running more conventional coinjection technology.-CK

Toshiba Machine Co. (America): ED Series

What it is: The ED Series is Toshiba Machine's newest large-tonnage, high-precision hybrid injection molding machine, incorporating special features for the automotive market.

Available from 650-3500 metric tons, its high-precision, repeatable, all-electric injection unit is available with barrel capacities ranging from 102-570 oz. Energy savings up to 60% vs. conventional hydraulic machines is provided, as is a 70% reduction in the amount of hydraulic oil required.

Clamp movement on the ED Series machine is accomplished by AC servomotors, which power fast, repeatable, and precise clamp movement. High-precision AC servos and Toshiba's patented synchronous control reportedly can provide up to an 18% reduction in overall cycle time when compared to the company's hydraulic machines. Also, the company's patent-pending linear guide support system is engineered to eliminate clamp-side load and, as a result, significantly reduce mold wear.

ED Series machines use six synchronous AC servomotors to control clamp movement-two for the moving platen and one on each tiebar. During the core-back injection sequence, the high-powered, superprecise servos on the tiebars start to open the moving platen. The mold core-back stop position is accurate to within ±0.01 mm. Such accuracy reduces wall thickness inconsistencies in the finished product.

How it works: The independent AC servo-axis movement of the clamp allows for two special features that can be used to improve automotive component quality-injection-compression and core-back.

The injection-compression feature allows the machine to start injection while the mold is still slightly open. When the high-tonnage sequence is initiated, it pushes the material to complete fill. This feature is especially useful in fabric overmolding of interior door panels.

The core-back molding feature, providing accurate and repeatable movement of the clamp, allows the skin of overmolded panels to be produced before the mold opens to a specific user setpoint, before foam injection into the middle of the component.

Benefits: ED Series hybrids are built to provide better part quality and repeatable part consistency, shot after shot. They're environmentally friendly machines engineered for a significant reduction in energy consumption, reliance on hydraulic oil, and cooling water requirements.

And, in addition to the cycle time reductions they offer, they're cool machines to watch, according to Toshiba sources.-CK

Battenfeld IMT: Aquamould

What it is: In a single-step process, Aquamould, Battenfeld's patented water-injection molding process, can provide weight reduction, lower manufacturing costs, more design freedom, and recyclability. Unlike the gas used in gas-assist injection molding, water has a cooling effect that reduces cooling times, particularly in parts with large cross-sections and uneven wall thickness distribution, according to Battenfeld sources.

Uncomplicated touch-screen controls are provided, and the pressure regulation modules are small enough to be mounted near the mold to help minimize pressure and volume output losses.

How it works: When the mold cavity is partially filled with a measured amount of melt, water is injected. The water propels the melt outward and provides the holding pressure necessary to result in complete cavity filling and a hollow molded part.

Methods for introducing the plastic melt and the water include a partial filling process, in which a measured quantity of plastic is injected first, followed by the water that forces the plastic to fill the cavity completely. Or, the entire mold cavity can be filled with plastic, followed by water injection to force the melt into the screw nozzle.

The water can be removed either by gravity, compressed-air blow-out, the injection of compressed air through the water nozzle, or by vacuum. Aquamould equipment consists of the water-pressure-generating unit, a mobile control cabinet, pressure control modules, and water-injection nozzles.

Benefits: Availability of water is, for all practical purposes, unlimited. It doesn't react with the plastic being molded, and it is incompressible and therefore, insensitive to changes in wall thickness distribution. Water can hollow out a part, reducing part weight and saving material, and it also cools the part from the inside out, improving cycle times.-CK

Milacron ServTek: TCS heater bands

What it is: ServTek TCS heater band system is a heating and cooling system for injection unit barrels. It allows for tight temperature control, thereby providing a more robust process. It uses 35-50% less energy than conventional heater bands while providing faster response times, plus a significantly longer service life.

How it works: This patented system consists of a radiant heating element embedded in high-temperature fiber insulation. The radiant heat goes directly into the barrel, immediately delivering total heat transfer into the machine's barrel, and not into the plant. So i

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