SPE Automotive Composites Conference Highlights

Highlights of the 4th annual Society of Plastics Engineers celebration of car composites.

The 4th annual Automotive Composites Conference, presented jointly by the Automotive and Composites divisions of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), welcomed nearly 300 attendees, exhibitors and presenters under the banner "Composites: Advancing Vehicles Worldwide." Held Sept. 14-15 at Michigan State University's (MSU) Management Education Center (Troy, Mich., U.S.A.), the conference spotlighted keynote speaker Dr. Michael Holscher, general project manager for Porsche's Carrera GT supercar. He gave a fascinating overview of the design and development of this almost all carbon/epoxy composite vehicle. Priced at 500,000 Euro or about $608,200 (USD), the car is slated for only 1,500 copies. Three hundred have been built and delivered to date, with 160 delivered to the U.S.

Technical papers included FiberForge Inc.'s (Basalt, Colo., U.S.A.) highly productive method for producing "tailored blanks" for compression-molded parts. FiberForge, a spinoff of Amory Lovins' HyperCar high-mileage/low-weight concept, takes large-tow carbon fiber or glass rovings and combines them with thermoplastic pellets (Nylon in the test case) in a high-speed automated layup system similar to tape placement, which orients the fibers and minimizes scrap. The semi-consolidated blank is heated in an infrared (IR) oven, then press molded to create the part -- a spare wheel well for the test case. FiberForge VP of engineering David Cramer claims the process and material is cost-competitive with thermoplastic prepregs and glass mat thermoplastics (GMT).

Adam Myers of General Motors described a new composite transmission cross member for full-size pickup trucks, under development at his company. The two-component, molded SMC cross member, a critical load-bearing element of the truck chassis, will replace a steel part and save 5 kg/11 lb, a "huge" reduction, according to Myers. Testing is under way, and the beam could be produced by the hundreds of thousands, if taken into production. Peter Foss, of GM's Research & Development and Planning Group, discussed another composite development, a thermoplastic composite liftgate for the Buick Rendevous. The composite version has reduced a multiple-part metallic gate to just three compression-molded components made with Twintex glass/polypropylene pellets, from Saint-Gobain Vetrotex (Valley Forge, Pa., U.S.A.).

Automotive industry consultant and CT contributing writer Dale Brosius moderated a lively panel that included Doug Denton of DaimlerChrysler, Dave Steenkamer of Ford, Dave Mattis of General Motors, Hidenori Nagaoka of Toyota, Jay Batten of Delphi as well as Gary Lownsdale of TransTech International, a consultant who has previously worked for all of the Big Three automakers. Brosius asked provocative questions about the current state and future outlook for composites in the automotive arena. Ford's representative Steenkamer seemed more receptive to composites, including sheet molding compound (SMC) panels, long fiber reinforced thermoplastics (LFRTs) and carbon, than did other OEMs. In particular, GM's Mattis indicated a bias within his company against SMC, based on "past difficulties" and felt that structural (i.e., hidden) components offer the best growth opportunities. DaimlerChrysler's Denton pointed out that there has been progress in liquid molding techniques like SRIM, originally funded by the Automotive Composites Consortium (ACC) and Lownsdale reminded the crowd that U.S. federal government funding is out there for development and commercialization of non-aerospace composites, potentially for automotive applications.

For information about the many conference exhibitors, see the list below.