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VDI: Aligning technology with aesthetics in automotive

Mannheim, Germany—At the annual international plastics conference “Plastics in Automotive Engineering 2013”, hosted by the Association of German Engineers, the ongoing themes in the auto industry—weight reduction, environmental requirements, cost reductions—were all much in evidence, often in combination with one another. At the same time, various exhibitors were also highlighting the role of aesthetics in design and choice of materials, and how this can affect the perception of product quality.


The latter came to the fore in the plenary talk given by Michael Haverkamp, an acoustics engineer at Ford Engineering Centre Cologne. He discussed how synaesthetic design—a method of design in which the information provided via all the sensory channels is coordinated at the perceptual level in order to create a satisfying and harmonized product experience—can be applied to engage and stimulate customers. Instead of concentrating on just one sense at a time, in a synaesthetic design approach, all the senses are integrated and incorporated into the design. Color, sound, odor, touch, and appearance provide input for perceived properties, and, making use of the “connecting strategies of the perceptual system,” as Haverkamp expressed it, affords customers a product experience that, if the designer has got it right, meets expectation on all sensory levels; i.e., the product looks, feels, smells and sounds the way it "should". This is an aspect that is especially important in a highly emotional product like a car, where performance and appearance are closely associated in the mind of the customer.

Yet at the same time, cost and sustainability remain important challenges that must also be met by the automotive industry. Solutions are needed that can deliver on all fronts, whether under the hood, in the interior or on the exterior—a tall order, but one companies are scrambling to meet. Here, just a few developments that were on display:

Borealis was promoting surface aesthetics solutions that, said the company, “will not only enable car manufacturers to achieve defect-free surfaces, but also help them capitalize on the benefits of reduced costs, environmental impact and optimized production cycle times.” The company has developed is a new polypropylene matrix to be used in compounds to address the problem of flow-induced surface defects known as tiger stripes. Although not yet launched on the market, it is an exciting enough development to show to customers here at VDI, prior to commercialization.

Jost Eric Laumeyer, Borealis global marketing manager Engineering Applications, explained: ”Tiger striping’s a problem that affects all thermoplastics. We’ve developed a robust solution that can eliminate tiger stripes within a broad processing window. Because it’s a modification of the material rather than an adjustment to the way the individual machine is programmed, customers everywhere can benefit. We are currently still working on this development in collaboration with a major OEM at Linz, and are looking forward to its commercialization before the end of the year.” 
 
A second innovation, which is also on show although still in the late development stage, is that of a primerless paint system. While most paint systems today are three-layer systems, primerless paint systems for exterior plastic applications are becoming increasingly popular in the industry, due to considerations such as cost reduction and sustainability. Yet at the same time, paint adhesion performance criteria are becoming ever more stringent. As most exterior parts are painted, demands on innovative solutions for improved paint adhesion are increasing. “We’ve achieved excellent adhesion to the polypropylene substrate under extreme conditions in the laboratory. Again, we’ve partnered with our customer on this development, which we expect to commercialize by the start of 2014,” said Laumeyer. The project required Borealis to invest in its own automated paint robot, which the company considered money well spent.

"The trend is clearly towards the use of primerless paint systems on exterior plastic components to reduce total part costs," emphasized Jost Eric Laumeyer.

At the DSM booth, pride of place was reserved for the engine beauty cover of the brand-new Mercedes-Benz A-Class made of bio-based EcoPaXX polyamide from DSM. Around 70% of the raw materials used to make the polyamide 410 in DSM's EcoPaXX Q-HGM24 reinforced compound are derived from the castor plant (Ricinus communis).

EcoPaXX Q-HGM24 has very good heat resistance, demonstrated by a deflection temperature under 1.8 MPa load (DTUL) of 200°C. The beauty cover, which weighs just 1.32 kg, can survive continuous-use temperatures of 200°C, with short-term peaks of 235°C. The compound, which contains glass-fiber and mineral-particulate reinforcement, produces a better surface appearance than any other polyamide currently used for this type of application. EcoPaXX is 70% biobased, but its green credentials come at no cost to performance, as it combines excellent mechanical properties with chemical resistance in various media. Mercedes-Benz states in the Life Cycle Environmental Certificate for the A-Class that production of an engine cover in biobased polyamide results in only around 40% of the quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that would be necessary in order to produce the same component from a conventional polyamide.

Since the launch of EcoPaXX, DSM has developed a full portfolio of polyamide 410 grades tuned to the needs of the automotive and other specialty industries. A crankshaft cover was also on show at the booth, which, according to DSM, would also be produced in EcoPAXX before the end of the year.

BASF was showcasing the world's first plastic engine support for the six-cylinder diesel engine in the new Mercedes GL Class. To date, engine supports always been made from aluminum. The plastic part offers improved acoustical properties, better thermal insulating characteristics, and a weight savings of over 30% versus the aluminum version, while being able to withstand the same load. The part, which supports the engine with the aid of the engine mounts, is molded from Ultramid A3WG10 CR, a highly reinforced specialty polyamide from BASF that has been optimized for high mechanical loads. Thanks to the damping behavior specific to plastic, the new engine support contributes to a more balanced sound. Also, as plastic does not conduct heat well, the Ultramid engine support provides better protection from the engine's heat for the natural rubber engine mounts connected to it, increasing their service life.

A highlight at the Lanxess booth was the prototype development, in collaboration with Takata AG, of the housing for a passenger airbag module. The module is made of the thermoplastic high-performance composite Tepex from Bond-Laminates, which company was acquired just last year by Lanxess, and a high-impact Durethan polyamide 6 copolymer. As a leading supplier advanced automotive safety systems and products, Takata was seeking to develop a lightweight airbag container that would meet all safety regulations. The hybrid solution, in which the Tepex insert was overmolded with a Lanxess Durethan nylon 6 containing 40% short glass, more than satisfied the requirements and is over 30 percent lighter than a mass-produced, injection-molded version. Satisfied with the speed with which the project was completed and the outcome, the partners in the project have agreed to collaborate on further projects in the future as well.

And next to all the familiar names at the VDI show—PolyOne was exhibiting its full range of automotive solutions, as was Teijin, Evonik, Sabic, Bayer and a host of others—there were also various newcomers who were exhibiting for the first time. Of these, perhaps the most well known was a subsidiary of the South Korean conglomerate LG. According to Gerald Heck, sales manager at LG Chem Europe, it was the company’s debut event in Europe. “LG is now looking to Europe for further growth,” he said. LG offers a wide range of engineering plastics tailored to automotive applications and is looking to grow its European business substantially over the coming year from its Frankfurt office.

At the opposite end of the scale was a small-sized company called Eco-Care Recycling Solutions, which specialized in the recovery of plastics from composite waste generated by the automotive industry. “Not end-of-life waste,” emphasized managing director Jean-Jacques Collin. “We collect the waste—for example, edge trims and punch scrap—generated during the production of dashboards. Via a process of mechanical separation, the different materials are recovered, from which we produce high-quality regrind and re-compounds,” he explained. “However, convincing the conservative automotive industry to recycle is an uphill task. This is changing, because of stringent regulations, as well as rising material costs. People are starting to understand that they can benefit from our activities. We already do business with several Tier-1 suppliers. Here at VDI, I’m hoping to show the rest what we can do.”

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