Automotive, going forward?

CT editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan asks when, if and how composites professionals will be ready to meet the challenges of significant use of carbon fiber composites in automobiles.

A few months ago, in this space, I wondered if and how composites might migrate more aggressively into automotive structures. And I promised to look into the matter and report back. Here’s what I found.

First, a refresher on my premise: Being a supplier to the automotive industry is not easy. Auto OEMs demand both high-volume manufacturing and high part quality. Parts and process must be qualified, and process must be sufficiently controlled so as to produce parts that consistently meet specification. A supplier might be expected to invest in capital equipment up front, and might not see revenue for a given part until several months after production has begun. Parts must be delivered on time, every time, and likely will be part of a just-in-time (JIT) system. Suppliers are expected to discover, continuously, new cost savings to help the automaker reduce expenses. Not for the faint of heart.

In the composites industry today, there are few companies that have sufficient experience in the automotive supply chain to meet these demands. The composites industry comprises, for the most part, disparate, relatively small firms. Most of the “large” fabricators in the composites industry primarily serve the aerospace market, where process, quality and volume paradigms are wholly different than they are in automotive. Those composites fabricators who are involved in auto parts production have, traditionally, served OEMs of high-end sports cars and racecars, where volumes are similarly low and, significantly, margins are high.

Still, it appears that composites’ time in high-volume automotive manufacturing has come. Fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. and CO2 emissions standards in Europe are driving automotive OEMs toward lightweighting like never before. So, my question is this: If this means composites’ time has come in automotive, how can the composites industry meet the needs of the automotive supply chain?

BMW is already modeling for the world one option. Its all-electric  i3 passenger car, which features a first-of-its-kind carbon fiber passenger cell (body-in-white), is being manufactured with almost no help from the rank-and-file composites community. BMW either owns jointly or wholly the entire composites material and manufacturing supply chain, from carbon fiber precursor production in Japan to carbon fiber manufacturing in Washington State to fabric weaving, preforming and resin transfer molding (RTM) in Germany. It’s unlikely, however, that every OEM interested in increasing the use of composites in its cars will follow BMW’s lead. And if this is true, what are the options?

Eugenio Toccalino, global strategic marketing director for Dow Automotive Systems (Auburn Hills, Mich.), says the auto industry is in the early stages of substantial composites integration, in which each OEM is pursuing a different strategy. “BMW did it on their own because they were first,” he contends. “It was a way for an OEM to build competitive advantage. There will be a democratization of technology — it will spread and be outsourced more.”

Steven Henderson, president of Dow Automotive Systems, notes, “We have OEMs who are dipping their toe in, and those who are all in.” The automotive supply chain, he says, must develop a mix of carbon fiber- and metals-based solutions to meet needs that range from structural to aesthetic. Whatever role composites play, Henderson and Toccalino agree that the auto industry requires two things: Fast-cure resins and composites manufacturing systems that can be easily and directly integrated into the body shop.

How might composites enter the body shop? Henderson and Toccalino argue that existing Tier 1 automotive suppliers are key, and they will have to develop more composites material and manufacturing expertise, either organically or by acquisition. “The economies of scale in automotive manufacturing are too large and the capital resources required are too big,” says Toccalino of the necessity for Tier 1s to be a part of the composites solution. “The Tier 1s are already in the supply chain and have the relationships, and know what automakers want.”

“We have already been lobbied by several tier suppliers to help them improve their composites manufacturing knowledge,” says Henderson. Dow is a party to at least one partnership, with Ford and a Tier 1, to develop carbon fiber composite structures. Such partnerships, he says, could become more common.

So, who are the big Tiers that might or might not come knocking on the composites industry’s door in search of greater knowledge? They include Faurecia (Nanterre, France), Magna (Aurora, Ontario, Canada), Continental Structural Plastics (CSP, Auburn Hills, Mich.), Bosch (Gerlingen-Schillerhöhe, Germany), Denso (Kariya, Aichi, Japan), Aisin (Kariya, Aichi, Japan), Hyundai Mobis (Seoul, Korea), ZF AG (Friedrichshafen, Germany) and Johnson Controls (JCI, Milwaukee, Wis.). Many of them already have at least some composites expertise — and some, like CSP, have a long history in composites manufacturing, particularly with sheet molding compound (SMC).

Dr. Mike Siwajek, director of R&D at CSP, says, “We’ve been pushed by the OEMs into high-volume applications,” pointing to CSP’s manufacture of an SMC roof for Jeep that approaches volumes in excess of 100,000 units annually. CSP, he says, is looking at two processing technologies to expand automotive penetration: compression molding of carbon-fiber SMC and resin transfer molding (RTM).

Probir Guha, VP of advanced R&D at CSP, sees automotive OEMs taking a more active role in composites development, seeking partners up and down the supply chain to help bring ideas to market quickly. CSP, he says, is involved in several development partnerships right now — news of which is expected soon. What’s more, the global nature of automaking puts additional demands on those in the supply chain: “Whatever you can do here,” he points out, “you must be able to do in Europe and China as well.”

Where, then, does this leave those elsewhere in the composites industry who want to be a part of the automotive composites emergence, but are neither tier suppliers nor manufacturers of a fast-cure resin or novel fiber form? For lessons, we might look to the plastics industry — traditional thermoplastics molding, that is. Injection molding, for example, is, in many ways, a manufacturing process ready-made for the automotive supply chain. When properly setup and run, an injection molding process requires little or no operator involvement, offers a relatively short cycle time, provides good process control, has minimal material variability and delivers a lot of process data about the conditions under which parts are produced. That’s because the process has grown up with the automotive industry, is well understood by it, and is clearly the dominant method for forming plastics.

Conversely, there is no one process that dominates composites manufacturing. Fabricators can choose from infusion, resin transfer molding (and it’s nearly infinite variations), pultrusion, sprayup, hand layup, automated fiber placement, compression molding and more. Further, composites fabrication still relies heavily on manual labor, which inevitably introduces some inconsistency and variability. Auto OEMs hate variability.

John Bozzelli, a consultant to the injection molding industry and a proponent of scientific molding (molding based on principles of thermo- and fluid-dynamics), notes that the automotive OEMs’ use of PPAP (production part approval process) puts heavy emphasis on manufacturing process control. This means processes must be repeatable and well documented so that the supplier can “respond to a bad part and fix any problems in the process,” he says. In injection molding, he notes, there are certain — and well-known — process parameters that are critical to producing a quality part. Composites fabricators who want to be in the automotive supply chain would have to make a similar determination about their process. However, given the diversity of materials and processes, coming to a consensus on process parameter criticality has been a challenge. “If someone could come out and establish that for composites manufacturing, it would be a big help,” he says.

There are, in fact, few tools in the composites industry that provide the reliable, meaningful, consistent process data necessary to characterize the health of a given manufacturing system. For example, aerospace composites manufacturing is famous for producing high-quality parts, but even in that environment, process control usually means curing a part of a given resin and fiber combination in an autoclave within a certain temperature range over a certain time period at a certain pressure. This temperature/time/pressure combination, of course, provides a well-established window in which the composite should cure, but actual cure may occur outside this window due to changes among any of several variables, including resin viscosity. And the data that might characterize that actual cure are rarely measured, captured or reported.

Measuring, capturing, organizing and updating process and material data is no small task. Unlike steel or any other isotropic material, which retains its physical properties throughout fabrication, composites’ amalgam of fiber, resin, sizing, adhesives, modifiers, fillers and core make it quasi-isotropic. Throw in the variables of fiber placement and orientation and manufacturing process type, and the complexities mount further. Material testing, part testing and good data management will be essential — for all markets served by composites, not just automotive.

It might be that automotive OEMs represent the major market force we need to push composites manufacturing into 21st Century process and data control. If composites professionals do not embrace and meet this challenge, it will be difficult for automakers to take this material and this industry seriously.