Composites reshaping auto industry

HPC editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan observes signs at the JEC Europe 2012 trade show that indicate the auto industry is seeking to partner with suppliers int he composites industry on lightweighting strategies for prpduction passenger vehicles.

We trade journalists go to a fair number of composites-oriented tradeshows. When we do, there’s a tendency to look for themes that give us some hint about where the industry is headed and what suppliers deem as important. In that spirit, the HPC editorial team went to Paris in March for the JEC Europe 2012 show. You’ll find our quick review of highlights from the show on p. 43. (We’ll follow up with a more complete report — with new product and new technology announcements — in the July issue of HPC.) But I can tell you right off that at this year’s JEC show, there was not an obvious and cohesive trend like the one we discovered in 2011 when every other stand, it seemed, displayed a vehicle or a major part of a vehicle.

But as we looked more closely, what emerged seems, in retrospect, to be a sort of continuation of the automotive-dominated 2011 JEC. The clue in Paris was a modest proliferation of pressure vessels designed for storage of compressed natural gas (CNG). Talking to the companies that emphasized them, we discovered quickly that today’s all-time-low prices for natural gas are prompting some in the auto industry to look more seriously at CNG as a viable fuel source. Indeed, on April 10, the U.S. Energy Information Admin. (EIA) reported that natural gas averaged $2.18/MMBtu (million British thermal units) in March — the lowest price since 1999. Further, the average 2012 price is $1.49 less than the average 2011 price. And it does not appear that these low prices will go back up anytime soon.

Couple this with strict fuel-efficiency standards and an ongoing desire to reduce oil dependence in the U.S. and Europe, and you can see why CNG might become at least one of several major fuel options for cars and trucks. That said, interest in CNG is but one factor among many that are reshaping automotive composites, including lightweighting, high-speed forming, increased use of thermoplastics, expanding carbon fiber supply and new carbon fiber suppliers. It’s no wonder, then, that suppliers and manufacturers up and down the composites supply chain are keenly focused on materials and processes to quickly make carbon fiber structures for production vehicles.

Take, for instance, these recently announced automotive/composites partnerships: BMW/SGL Group, General Motors/Teijin, Toyota/Toray, Magna/Zoltek and now Ford/Dow Automotive (see p. 15). Or, consider those that are actively developing high-speed automotive manufacturing processes: Plasan Carbon Composites, Umeco, Globe Machine, Dieffenbacher and KraussMaffei. Fueling these efforts is a growing carbon fiber supply base: Toray announced a major expansion in March (see p. 17), followed by SABIC’s announcement at JEC that it’s moving forward with plans to make industrial-grade carbon in the next few years. Then, as HPC went to press, we learned that Cytec was buying Umeco to help the former gain access to the latter’s industrial and automotive markets (see p. 13).

The Ford news, in particular, is striking. As recently as 2009, Ford officials told HPC that unless carbon fiber cost declined to $5/lb, the company would not consider the material for automotive structural components. Clearly the lightweighting benefits conveyed by composites and a fast-changing automotive industry have triggered a change in thinking at Ford.

It’s fair to assume that this dynamic innovation will continue and accelerate. The bottom line is that JEC Europe 2013 likely will show more symptoms of this evolution toward development of viable, high-speed processes for manufacture of carbon fiber parts in automotive applications. Look for HPC to explore these changes in depth in the coming months.