Detroit’s Big Three love to show off advanced plastics in concept cars, but when the rubber hits the road they are favoring lighter and thinner metals as a fundamental weight reduction strategy. I’ve had the privilege in the last two weeks to interview the top materials engineers at GM, Ford and Chrysler for an upcoming feature story on vehicle light weighting. Development of electric cars is ramping up light weighting efforts so that battery sizes can be minimized. As a result, the autos OEMs are willing to consider higher materials costs than might normally be the case.
One example: polycarbonate was used to make the roof module on the Chevy Volt concept car last year. PC is lighter than steel, and offers improved styling. Yet GM and Ford both have serious technical issues with the material for that application. “Its durability and robustness over time is the question,” comments Mark Verbrugge, the director of GM’s Materials and Process lab. “We’d very much like to use it. We’ve wanted to for years, but we haven’t been able to resolve all of the problems that have come up in our validation programs.” Shawn Morgans, Ford’s body structure technical leader, comments: “It’s (PC for roof modules) something we’ve looked at quite a bit, but it’s another technology that just isn’t ready for prime time. We’re finding some limitations to the material.” Those include weathering and scratch resistance.
The Detroit Three are planning increased use of thinner, high-strength steels, thanks in part to new structural adhesive technology. They are also expanding use of aluminum and magnesium.
As the 3D printing and overall additive manufacturing ecosystem grows, standards and guidelines from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Multiple players with multiple needs are also driving the role of 3DP and AM as enabling technologies for distributed manufacturing.
A growing though not-so-obvious role for 3D printing, 4D printing, and overall additive manufacturing is their use in fabricating new materials and enabling new or improved manufacturing and assembly processes. Individual engineers, OEMs, university labs, and others are reinventing the technology to suit their own needs.
For vehicles to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, three things must happen: customers must look beyond the data sheet and engage materials supplier earlier, and new integrated multi-materials are needed to make step-change improvements.
3D printing, 4D printing, and various types of additive manufacturing (AM) will get even bigger in 2015. We're not talking about consumer use, which gets most of the attention, but processes and technologies that will affect how design engineers design products and how manufacturing engineers make them. For now, the biggest industries are still aerospace and medical, while automotive and architecture continue to grow.
More and more -- that's what we'll see from plastics and composites in 2015, more types of plastics and more ways they can be used. Two of the fastest-growing uses will be automotive parts, plus medical implants and devices. New types of plastics will include biodegradable materials, plastics that can be easily recycled, and some that do both.
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