Automotive composites: Let's not sleep through the revolution

 In Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, Rip Van Winkle wanders into the Catskill Mountains of colonial New York, meets some strangely dressed men, drinks their liquor and promptly falls asleep under a tree for 20 years. When he awakens, the Colonies have won their independence from England and the world is much different.

If Irving had been writing about the auto industry, and Van Winkle had fallen asleep on a Detroit auto assembly line in 1985 to awaken in 2005, he’d have seen some changes, but most of the OEMs would have remained the same. Although technology advances, particularly in electronics, coatings and composites, would have taken some relearning and adjustment, the transition would not have been all that difficult. But if our modern Rip had fallen asleep in August 2008 and awakened this month, just 12 months later, he’d be thunderstruck: General Motors down to four brands, passing through bankruptcy … with no presence in Europe going forward? An Italian company, Fiat, now owns Chrysler? Even mighty Toyota posting an operating loss for 2008 (and likely 2009)?

These changes are only the beginning. I suggest that no manufacturing industry in history has ever experienced the revolutionary upheaval that has occurred in the automotive industry, certainly not in the space of one year. One could argue, I suppose, that the massive buildup of aircraft manufacturing when the U.S. entered World War II was as dramatic, but it expanded manufacturing rather than contracted it. In the early 1900s, the demise of literally hundreds of independent automobile manufacturers occurred over decades, and they didn’t just disappear. Most were, with their production capacities, absorbed by other OEMs that were selling into a growing market for vehicles.

When the dust settles, we’ll have a new paradigm: Smaller, leaner OEMs with narrower, more targeted vehicle lines, competing against some of their previous brands owned by new entrants — including, perhaps, Magna and Penske — without a legacy of auto manufacture. Without a doubt, many questions will be raised for every one answered. For example, will brand loyalty matter? What will customers want to buy — big and powerful, or small and efficient? And how will traditional hybrids, plug-in electric hybrids and all-electric vehicles fit into this “new normal?”

An obvious question for readers of this magazine is What is the future for composites in this reshaped auto industry? If we start with the fact that U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) fuel economy standards have not been relaxed and manufacturers still have to achieve 35-mpg average fleet efficiency by 2020, then composites should have plenty of opportunities to increase penetration rates on new-model vehicles. In June of this year, Ford, Nissan, and all-electric OEM Tesla Motors, were given more than $8 billion (USD) in DoE loans to build capacity for more efficient vehicles. Proven to be lighter than steel, composites contribute directly to mass reduction. Perhaps more important in this new financial environment is that the investment in tooling to make composite body panels is much lower than that for metal-stamping dies, and this is further enhanced by the ability of proper composites design to integrate parts. And as volumes fall for specific models, the unit production costs for composites will look more attractive. Perhaps we will see more composite truck beds as well as hoods and decklids.

The biggest question, however, is Who will pay for all these developments? When I started in automotive composites in 1984, the OEMs footed the bill for development — in their own labs or those of suppliers. Over the past 25 years, that model has migrated: Today, the suppliers bear virtually all the development costs. Over the next several years, those who adopt composites likely will depend on “off-the-shelf” formulas, compounds and methods. But in the long term, it will take new materials, designs and innovative processes to make the fuel efficiency equation add up. I’ll be seeking answers to these dilemmas and others as I head a panel discussion on these topics at the SPE Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition (ACCE), Sept. 15-16, 2009 (see “Learn More”).

If you’re a supplier to the automotive composites industry, don’t fall asleep like old Rip Van Winkle — because you won’t want to miss your opportunity to capitalize on the changes that are sure to come.