Seeing is believing—that's what Ken Grant and David Loren had in mind when they decided to create a Ford Focus aftermarket racing kit that would demonstrate the use of polycarbonate glazing and interest the design community in using the technology.
The plan worked. When exhibited at the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show in Las Vegas (http://rbi.ims.ca/4403-500), the Focus prototype, brain child of Altair Engineering Inc. (http://rbi.ims.ca/4403-501) and Bayer MaterialScience (http://rbi.ims.ca/4403-502) to showcase panoramic roof and tailgate concept parts, moved from being merely a concept to a 3D object that could be touched by those who could not visualize the final product.
"We took a standard Ford and beefed it up," says Loren, project leader in Bayer's future business group. "It's fun to look at the reaction of the people, knocking on it to see what it was made of," adds Grant, who is the creative design director at Altair.
Despite the warm reception, wide adoption of polycarbonate glazing is still nowhere in sight in the automotive world—at least not yet in America.
Best exemplified in the SMART car's wraparound quarter windows, polycarbonate glazing has for years drawn interest from automotive designers because of its styling flexibility compared with that offered by glass.
"One of the 'givens' in vehicle design is the use, placement, and shape of the see-through or glass areas," Grant comments. "The use of polycarbonate materials gives the design community additional blank canvas, allowing more creative design solutions."
For the Ford Focus concept parts project, the solution was Makrolon® glazing from Bayer. Injection-molded for the Focus prototype, Makrolon has been commercially used on the Porsche Carrera special edition backlite and the Mercedes C-Class transparent body panel. (For the technical details on various grades of Makrolon, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4403-503.)
"I never worked with polycarbonate on a prototype level; it's tough but was worth the trip," Grant says. "The aftermarket is responsible for creating the market trends that get adopted by the OEMs. We need to keep pushing new applications and allow consumer reaction to drive polycarbonate glazing technology into mainstream programs."
Cool Cars Have Curves: The panoramic roof and
tailgate of the Ford Focus aftermarket concept racing kit by Altair
Engineering Inc. are achieved by using Makrolon polycarbonate glazing from
Beyond the Niche Benefit
Niche applications that involve dramatic auto designs have been a significant force in the use of polycarbonate glazing. "The shape was the big driver back five, six years ago," Loren comments. "Now, big savings is the big driver."
According to previous Bayer studies, polycarbonate glazing can decrease weight by 30-50 percent compared with glass, thus answering the automotive industry's growing quest for a fuel-efficient solution. During the eight-week design and prototyping of the Ford Focus concept parts, the Altair-Bayer team managed to reduce the weight of the panoramic roof from 30 lbs if using glass to 14 lbs when using polycarbonate glazing. As a result of such a weight reduction, the center of gravity of the automobile is lowered, and the vehicle safety is enhanced.
Though not shown on the Ford Focus prototype, Loren says, when properly designed, polycarbonate glazing also offers the potential for function integration and parts consolidation, resulting in manufacturing cost savings for automakers. In addition, Loren adds, polycarbonate glazing is superior to glass in terms of transparency, durability, impact resistance, UV protection, and the ability to add color and special effects.
Despite the promising potentials, Loren contends that the U.S. auto industry will likely continue to trail behind its European and Asian counterparts in adopting polycarbonate glazing. Taking a stricter approach than the regulatory bodies in Europe and Asia, the NHTSA allows polycarbonate glazing only in the roof systems, backlights, and rear quarters. Plastics for windshields and moveable side windows are still ruled out, and the rule of thumb is that no polycarbonate glazing can be used to a part where the driver's or passenger's head will be next to it rather than below it, Loren says.
But the biggest roadblock in the U.S. market, ironically, lies in costs and styling.
"Traditional North America glazing design can be simple, and glass is quite cost-effective," Loren comments. "Only when you get to more unique design will glass become less and less effective."
Loren is hopeful, however, that the polycarbonate glazing technology will "manifest itself in the four-, five-year time frame." He projects that the glazing trend in Europe and Asia will sooner or later help drive the use of polycarbonate glazing in the U.S.
Grant echoes, "I think automakers are always looking for the next trend and how they can differentiate their products from others," he says. "The industry will embrace polycarbonate glazing based on the reaction of consumers we saw at the SEMA Show."