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.
A new compression molding compound material combines the light weight, strength, and rigidity of carbon fibers with the flexibility and lower cost of glass materials in a composite compatible with automotive production.
Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. Some of Germany-based igus's bearings are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. The research robot version is now being used in corporate R&D departments as a design platform.
End-production using 3D printing, including objects made of multiple materials in one pass, is getting closer to reality as we saw on the exhibit floor at the recent Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show.