Plastics in automotive engineering: Next weeks difficult, but long-term outlook still bright

Mannheim, Germany-In 1970, plastic parts accounted for only about 5% of a car's total weight. Those of us who burned ourselves on metal dashboards and steering wheels won't argue with that number. Today, it's more like 15%, and the chance of the percentage climbing even higher is almost a given.

Based on talks here this week with numerous suppliers of materials, molds, and technology to the automotive industry, the pace of plastics' incursion into automotive applications still dominated by other materials will increase. Driving the accelerated pace of change will be carmakers' striving to reduce their vehicles' carbon dioxide emissions, new technologies such as electronically-powered cars, and more, according to Wolfgang Hopke, president, performance polymers at plastics supplier BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany), who spoke to a packed house of processors, Tier suppliers and OEMs at his company's annual event here on the eve of the Plastics in Automotive Engineering conference organized by the German engineers' society, VDI.

BASF's award-winning Materials Kit for designers
When it comes to sales, design can be a carmaker's best friend. BASF's "Material Kit" for designers and development engineers was recognized late last year by the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE Europe, 10th Automotive Award) with its "Grand Innovation Award" in the Image / Product Brochure category. The kit includes samples of more than 30 different BASF products.

"We assume hybrid and electric autos will continue to gain market share, and lower weight is critical to these (cars)," explained Hopke. The automotive industry has spoken of weight reduction for years, of course, but increased focus on CO2 emissions-also from legislators-could accelerate developments.

One result, predicted Hopke, will be that "glass and carbon fibers are going to undergo a renaissance" as processing technology for compounds continuing these reinforcing materials continue to improve.

Many plastics suppliers, especially those heavily engaged in the automotive industry, have had delivery issues in the past year as demand out of the automotive industry picked up more quickly after the 2008/'09 recession than many suppliers were able to react. Indeed, Hopke predicted that raw material cost and availability will remain prominent themes in the coming months, exacerbated greatly by the ongoing events in Japan following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.  

"We think the combination of crises-in Libya, in Japan-will drive up oil prices in the next months," he said. The events in Japan especially will affect the automotive industry" as suppliers there of, for instance, critical electronic parts are unable to meet demand. Indeed, on the day before Hopke spoke, it was reported that Toyota would need to halt production of its cars in the U.S. due to breaks in its own supply chain.

 Hopke predicted that the next 2-4 weeks would bring other similar announcements, and not only from Japanese carmakers. Others at the VDI event said they have already heard of other shortages that have not yet been announced. BASF itself was affected in Japan as one of its factories for effect pigments was effectively destroyed. "Simple answers (to the current situation in the industry) are not to be found," he noted.


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