The automotive industry’s “killer app”?

Automotive is king, and the killer automotive app will be the multi-material and all-carbon-fiber B-pillar.

Inspiration for the central topic of this monthly column comes in multiple ways. Often, it comes from being at a significant conference or composites industry trade show, where new technologies are presented or displayed. Such is indeed the case each year when I travel to the JEC World exposition in Paris. There, in one location, I can see novel inventions and general trends simultaneously. This year’s event was no exception, and I came away impressed by where we are as an industry and enthusiastic about where we are going.

First, some general observations. There is significant coverage elsewhere in CompositesWorld, so these are neither exhaustive nor do they represent much more than highlights:

The composites industry is thriving. The sheer size of the exhibition, and the strong crowds during the first two days, presented visual evidence of this. In numerous meetings and conversations, I heard overwhelmingly optimistic opinions on the state of the market.

Automation is breaking down barriers to high volume. It’s clear the composites machinery builders have listened to the market and are now delivering innovative equipment to rapidly cut, place and consolidate continuous fiber materials, both in dry and impregnated formats.

Thermoplastic composites are gaining market share. That’s true in developmental efforts and in applications on new platforms. And it’s especially true for continuous fiber thermoplastics, either used alone or as structural backbones in conjunction with discontinuous fiber thermoplastics. I even saw examples of thermoset inner panels bonded to thermoplastic outer panels.

Finally, automotive is king. The vast number of automotive applications on display throughout the halls this year clearly shows that most suppliers believe automotive composites are 
the future of the industry. While the allure has always been there, simply because of the very large multipliers that can be applied
to even modestly sized parts, it appears that the confluence of new materials and new machines that target fast manufacture is finally making this a reality. Everywhere one turned at JEC, there were ample displays of shiny exterior components produced from carbon fiber, including hoods, roofs, decklids and wheels. And while these will find select application on certain vehicle platforms, they face significant competition from aluminum and low-density fiberglass SMC.

The true large-volume opportunities for carbon fiber will come from select applications into the multi-material body-in-white, or structure that lies beneath the body panels. Google defines the term killer app as “a feature, function or application of a new technology or product that is presented as virtually indispensable or much superior to rival products.” So, what will be the automotive killer app that has an outsized effect on the advanced composites industry?

At JEC, there were numerous booths featuring structural automotive components, such as transmission tunnels, cross-car beams and rear package shelves. But one application stood out,
 as evidenced by the displays at well over a dozen stands: vehicle B-pillars made in whole or in part with carbon fiber composites. In automotive parlance, the B-pillar is the vertical structural member behind the front doors, historically produced using thick and heavy stamped steel. This component requires exceptional stiffness, and the ability to protect passengers during a side impact or rollover event, and continuous carbon fiber offers significant weight savings over the baseline material. Even better, it does not require a difficult-to-achieve Class A finish.

In the BMW 7 Series, UD carbon fiber prepreg is molded directly onto a thinner steel stamping, providing a several kilogram weight savings per pillar. For the Audi R8 and Lamborghini Huracán, the B-pillars are produced entirely in carbon fiber, without steel. On
 the DowAksa stand at JEC, there was a prototype molded B-pillar insert, developed jointly with Ford, that is secondarily bonded 
into a thinner steel stamping to provide the required strength and stiffness. Each approach represents a different way to achieve the result; the hybrid steel/composite designs are a bit more conservative and, therefore, easier to integrate into existing assembly lines.

I believe the B-pillar potentially represents the automotive industry killer app. It can be applied relatively quickly, even as 
a running change on many existing vehicle platforms. At 2 kg of carbon fiber per pillar (4 kg per vehicle), this application on 20%
 of the world’s vehicles would alone represent 80,000 MT of carbon fiber, equal to the entire current market for all applications! That would be transformative, indeed. That will require that we continue to drive down molded part costs, and develop a whole lot of new fiber capacity. Based on the range of innovations on display at JEC, this dream seems well within reach. 

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