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Cost pressures help plastics gain traction

Increased pressure on automakers to reduce costs while improving fuel economy, durability, safety, and noise and vibration levels is expected to drive the use of plastics to new applications. Plastics offer automotive OEMs the styling flexibility needed to reduce vehicle weight for better gas mileage, consolidate parts for cost savings, and enhance corrosion resistance for longer service life. These and other trends were discussed at the third annual Society of Plastics Engineers'' (SPE) Automotive Composites Conference & Exposition held Sept. 9-10 at Michigan State University''s Management Education Center (Troy, MI).

Annual plastics consumption in passenger cars and light trucks assembled in North America is forecast to grow by more than 1 billion lb to 5.45 billion lb in 2013, according to "Automotive Plastics Report-2003," published by Market Search Inc. (Toledo, OH). The report identifies high-growth opportunities in polycarbonate and acrylic window glazing, ionomer-skinned bumper fascia, polypropylene headliners, and new bumper energy-absorber systems.

"If you look at the interior, it is dominated by various plastic types," points out Michael Connolly, senior scientist, Huntsman Polyurethanes, and chairman of SPE''s Automotive Div. "Where you see plastics expanding in the next one to two model years are in structural applications, such as high-beam supports and low floors. For example, on an SUV, if the roof module is 25 lb lighter than a steel module, there''s a big difference on the center of mass." Lighter vehicles can also boost fuel economy.

A study from Business Communications Co. Inc. (BCC; Norwalk, CT) finds that many best-selling models in the U.S., such as sport utility vehicles (SUVs), fall far short of current mileage standards. Automotive OEMs have pledged voluntary mileage gains for SUVs and claim they will soon launch more efficient models, requiring increased use of plastics.

According to a new study from BCC, exterior applications also represent more opportunities for plastics. This market is projected to grow 3%/yr and reach 1.4 billion lb by 2006. This includes thermosets, thermoplastic elastomers, engineering resins, commodity thermoplastics, alloys, and blends. Bumper systems are an area where plastics/elastomers have made the most significant penetration. Side trim/moldings, transparent lenses, headlamp/signal light housings, and body panels are other key product areas where plastics/elastomers are gaining traction.

There are, however, several conflicting objectives and marketing practices that characterize automotive exteriors for plastics, BCC said. Among them are the drive for lighter-weight vehicles in which plastics and aluminum are favored, and the difference between resin/elastomer and steel costs that depends on units sold. While the higher number of units favors steel, there is a difference of opinion on the number required to force a decision.

"In super-high-volume applications, it''s hard to beat the cost of steel because the material is just cheaper," a Ford composites engineer says. "But at the same time, we are getting a lot smarter on how and where to use plastics and how to incorporate a bunch of parts into a singular part. Plastics offer you the opportunity to do that."

"The biggest thing I see happening is the development of modules that reduce assembly [time], but also allow for overall assembly of the vehicle to come together in less steps. So you''re using less resources," observes Tom Bailey, advanced engineering development manager at Intier Automotive (Newmarket, ON), a manufacturer of vehicle interior and closure components and systems.

Some conference presentations focused on the use of carbon-fiber components in production cars, which industry members say is increasing. In-mold assembly, painting, and decorating are also expected to grow significantly. "We are doing a ton of work in regards to plastics and the use of films and decorative paints, features that can be placed in the tool for one-stop molding back injection," Bailey says. "That is really growing because of the way you can integrate different looks on areas like the center console, door features, and little trim areas."

Greg Valero [email protected]

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