Design engineers who love composites as well as cars often feel like Sisyphus pushing that impossibly heavy rock up the hill, only to have it roll back again.
Management wants a home run on the new platform but frequently avoids new technologies. Purchasing never seems to understand the difference between raw material costs and systems costs, no matter how many times you explain it. Those folks in manufacturing drop the slides (tool mechanism) as a cost-cutting move and wonder why they have die-lock. And consumers grumble because paint peels off, but they never seem to notice that composite parts increase fuel economy, hide scratches, never rust, and rebound from fender-benders and Johnny's line drives with aplomb.
After the disastrous global automotive crash of 2008-2009, the big buzz (and great hope) among resin suppliers and molders was that the perfect storm of opportunity would finally allow composites to make significant inroads into applications long dominated by steel and more recently by aluminum, particularly on body panels, powertrain, and chassis.
With automakers scuttling old plants and planning new ones in markets far from Detroit, Tokyo, and Wolfsburg, gone was a half-century's worth of long-amortized capital equipment designed to stamp sheet steel. If you have to buy new equipment anyway, why not buy fewer presses that -- oh, by the way -- make plastic parts a whole lot faster?
The far-lower build volumes of the current automotive landscape also benefit composites, since faster processing cycles with fewer secondary-finishing operations means composites tooling is clearly more cost competitive, particularly now that the true cost of making parts in composites vs. metals can finally be seen.
Super-storms, changing weather patterns, and memories of 2008's record fuel prices have made environmental considerations fashionable again throughout the supply chain. When coupled with tougher emissions requirements bearing down on automakers worldwide, weight savings has become a serious topic of conversation. Suppliers are begging OEM designers to assign a more realistic premium for every kilogram of weight that can be stripped from their vehicles. In fact, lightweighting can be critical when hybrids and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are on the drawing board.
Last January, the Boston Consulting Group (Boston, Mass.) issued a press release summarizing conclusions from a new report, "Batteries for Electric Cars: Challenges, Opportunities and the Outlook to 2020." According to the report, although electric-car battery costs are expected to fall sharply over the coming decade, they are unlikely to drop enough to spark widespread adoption of fully electric vehicles without a major breakthrough in battery technology.
With consumers already suffering range anxiety
, will their electric vehicles carry them to the next charging station or strand them in between? Automotive designers have the opportunity to extend the range of electric vehicles and/or reduce the high cost of so many batteries by attacking steel where it hurts: by going after body structure. This can be done faster and less expensively with composites while we're all waiting for those new battery breakthroughs.
Weight reduction is just as important for vehicles sporting internal-combustion engines (ICE), which probably will be the majority of engines for some time to come. ICE technology can and will get more efficient. There's still lots of cheese down that hole, but it will take time and require significant capital investment to get there. Again, a parallel, faster, and less costly approach is to take weight out by removing steel and aluminum.
Composites have a long, albeit narrow, history of use on exterior bodies; in recent decades, they have made spectacular progress in chassis components on the racing circuit and with high-prestige supercars. But to really get to a composite chassis on high-volume vehicles that mere mortals can afford, carbon composites -- the best option at present -- are going to have to get a whole lot less costly and a whole lot more productive than they are today. More on that another time.
Is the automotive-composites industry really facing that perfect storm of opportunity? Any significant progress will be hard-won and is going to require a level of intra-industry cooperation and innovation we've just not seen in automotive plastics or composites to date. Let's face it: The steel folks aren't going to sit back and let their marketshare disappear. They proved themselves exceptionally resilient and innovative in the 1990s when they reinvented their materials and processing methods. To get beyond today's few-hundred kilograms of plastics per vehicle, the composites supply chain is going to have to work fast and furious with automotive designers to effect this paradigm shift.