Are we ready?

CT's editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan reviews activities on the automotive front, as OEMs consider composites to lightweight their vehicles in view of more stringent fuel economy and tailpipe emissions regulations, asking "Are we ready?"

As you know, composites have been used in the automotive industry for many years, but (aside from underhood injection molded composites) primarily in low-volume, high-performance applications and mainly in nonstructural or semistructural parts. You also likely know that global market forces are pushing many high-volume carmakers toward composites in order to meet emissions targets in Europe and fuel-efficiency requirements in the U.S. The question is, How quickly and thoroughly will composites be integrated into everyday cars and trucks? Some say the “tipping point” is here and that the car industry is in the midst of a full-scale shift to composites. Others say that composites are, and will remain, a niche material.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we are in the midst of a large shift toward composites use in structural and semistructural automotive parts and that the automotive industry on the whole is about to demand composite components numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The question I keep coming back to in this scenario is this: What happens when you marry a demanding, quality-obsessed, just-in-time, penny-pinching industry like high-volume automotive manufacture with a labor-intensive, black-artish industry like composites, where 5,000 units of anything is a lot, and 100,000 units might as well be infinity? In short: Is the composites industry ready for the prime time of high-volume automotive manufacturing?

Certified suppliers to the likes of Ford, GM, Chrysler and VW play by a very demanding set of rules in terms of process control, quality control, on-time delivery, enterprise management, cost containment, documentation, accountability and a host of other factors. None of these, however, is more important than process control. Automotive parts suppliers can’t check every part before it goes out the door — that’s just not practical. This means quality must be built into the process: Raw materials, machinery, procedures and processes must be carefully developed and kept consistently within specification; if this is accomplished, parts resulting from such a well-managed system should be within specification.

I am willing to wager that many of you work in facilities that produce high-quality composite parts. But could you quickly become a high-volume manufacturer who not only makes in-spec parts but does so without losing all profit to scrap and rework? Do you have equipment and systems that allow you to dial-in fixed settings to keep processes constant and consistent, or do you rely on manual labor that is, by nature, less consistent? If an automotive customer told you that a part you supplied was out of spec, do you have documentation procedures that would enable you to track it to the machinery and material lot from which it came?

We have wished for so long that high-volume carmakers would embrace composites. Are we — assuming that the date is close at hand — prepared to meet the need? CT will soon seek an answer to that query by taking a closer look at the composites industry’s prospective process control shift. We’ll talk with experts inside and outside of the auto industry about what the future might have in store, asking how composites professionals can rise to the challenge. The goal? Not to be sorry that we weren’t more careful about what we wished for.