Don’t be surprised if Japanese OEMs lead the way on what my be the next big technology leap in mass-market auto design—bodies made with advanced plastic composites like those used in the Boeing Dreamliner still under development. Boeing’s sole supplier for the enormous amounts of composites required for the plane is Toray Industries, which co-located a production plant next to Boeing’s assembly factory near Seattle, WA. Toray is rapidly ramping up capacity to meet demand for the 787 and other projects, including future Airbus planes. Toray recently established a $24 million automotive center in Nagoya, Japan to develop advanced composites for cars. Its main mission will be to make the new lightweight systems more affordable. Use of carbon-fiber reinforced panels in the body of the new Tesla (all-electric) roadster adds $3,000 in cost per car—way more than cash-strapped American OEMs (and customers) can afford now. Regular fiberglass composites, such as those used on the Corvette, are less expensive, but much heavier.
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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