The 7th annual Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition, presented jointly by the Automotive and Composites divisions of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), was billed this year by organizers as the largest forum in the world specifically dedicated to automotive composites. Held Sept. 11-13 at Michigan State University’s (MSU) Management Education Center (Troy, Mich.) and chaired by Dale Brosius of Quickstep Technologies (Brighton, Mich.), the conference treated more than 400 participants to a record 69 technical papers as well as seven keynote speakers and two lively panel discussions under the banner “Driving Performance and Productivity.”
In the opening keynote address, the American Chemistry Council’s Dr. Michael Fisher noted that after several years of sustained high oil prices, governments worldwide, especially in the U.S., are increasingly serious about reducing petroleum dependence. Many have passed or are considering fuel economy/emissions legislation that should spur development of plastics- and composites-intensive vehicles.
Thermoplastic and thermoset composites were equally represented, both in the technical content and among the more than 30 exhibitors. A number of papers outlined advances in long fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composites, with increasing emphasis on exterior appearance applications. Driven by the efforts of compounding/molding machine manufacturers, advances in direct long-fiber thermoplastic (D-LFT) compounding and molding (in both compression and injection scenarios) continue to reduce part costs, especially in high-volume applications of polypropylene/glass composites. Pelletized versions of long fiber thermoplastics continue to show growth in polypropylene, while versions using higher performance engineering thermoplastics like POM (acetal), PPS (polyphenylene sulfide)and polyamides (nylon) are finding high-value niche applications. Use of continuous fiber thermoplastics, however, should open new opportunities to compete against metals and thermosets, an expectation highlighted in new technology presentations by SABIC Innovative Plastics (Pittsfield, Pa., formerly GE Plastics) and Ticona Engineering Polymers (Florence, Ky.). Keynoter Abbe Scheiner of Townsend Polymer Services & Information outlined the findings of a just-completed market study, revealing that 183,000 metric tonnes (403 million lb) of LFT were used worldwide in 2006 — 80 percent in the auto market — with just more than half of the total in Europe. Sheiner predicted that proliferation of existing applications alone should lead to annual growth of 12 percent or more through 2011.
A full day of sessions organized by the Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA) highlighted advances in thermoset materials for structural and exterior surface components. Improvements in SMC technology were featured, including the status of SMC compatibility with OEM powder priming operations and UV stability (unpainted), as well as evolving technologies that can produce parts using directly compounded and molded SMC, similar to existing D-LFT techniques. A number of ACA’s speakers focused on progress in the use of renewable resources, such as bio-based thermosets (soy and polylactic acid, or PLA) and natural fibers, in nonstructural and semistructural components. Notably, Amar Mohanty of Michigan State University highlighted the potential for natural fibers and crop-based resources for parts and for automotive fuels.
Hannes Fuchs of Multimatic Inc. (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) described development of a complex carbon composite decklid for a Ford Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle, and Martin Starkey of Gurit (Isle of Wight, U.K.) showed how his company’s SPRINT CBS carbon semipregs are being used in several components on the newly introduced Aston Martin DBS, a high-performance version of the DB9. In his overview of the carbon fiber industry and carbon’s use in automotive apps, Chuck Segal of OMNIA LLC (Raleigh, N.C.) doubted that hoped-for $3/lb to $5/lb carbon fiber is achievable using existing technologies. He did say there is substantial potential for carbon use in niche applications, assuming the supply community brings sufficient capacity on line. In an opening day keynote speech, Robert Kisch of The Boeing Co. (Seattle, Wash.) elaborated on the advancements made by Boeing in materials development and automated fabrication technologies that led to the decision to choose composites for the majority of the 787 Dreamliner structures. He noted that today, it might be possible to build the plane less expensively in aluminum, but felt the advantages offered to the customer justified the premium and that, over time, costs will come down substantially. Kisch’s comments prompted considerable discussion about how to get the auto industry to make the same “leap of faith.” Day two’s panel, entitled “Composite Industry Imperatives to Meet the Needs of the Next Decade,” featured representatives from Tier 1 molders Meridian Automotive Systems (Allen Park, Mich.) and Continental Structural Plastics (Troy, Mich.), and from OEMs Honda, Ford, International Truck and John Deere. Ford’s Carl Johnson thinks today’s processes for producing composites can work, but need to be more robust in order to drive cost out. He contended that clever parts and process integration will be needed to get past existing hurdles. Honda’s Gary Flint sees more opportunities in improving vehicle aerodynamics, including stylized exterior body panels and underbody treatments, but he believes steel will remain the best choice for crashworthy structures.
The conference closed with a panel entitled “Marketing the Value of Composites,” moderated by Composites Technology’s editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan and featuring key executives from industry suppliers who acknowledged that materials specification processes are slow and nonuniform even in applications already proven successful for other OEMs (to read Jeff’s panel commentary, click on “From the Editor” under “Related Content,” at left). Meridian’s David Dyke noted that every one of his company’s 14 OEM customers has a unique set of challenges. “Customers need value, end customers need value, and we must be more creative than the next guy to overcome the existing paradigms,” he emphasized. Ticona’s Roland Polet said lack of existing infrastructure in emerging markets (e.g., China) might offer the greatest near-term potential for innovation and risk-taking as the market grows from just over 4 million vehicles annually to a projected 16 million by 2012.