I spent the week of Sept. 12 at the annual SPE Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition (ACCE) in Troy, Mich. This event, in its 11th year, does a great job of bringing together many of the automotive industry’s smartest and most creative composites thinkers and doers, and this year was no exception. With three concurrent tracks, it was not possible for me to attend all of the presentations. Further, I write this having just returned from the trip. But I wanted to provide here a quick review of highlights from sessions I did attend. (We’ll have a more complete report on the ACCE in the coming December issue of CT.)
A major theme this year was compression molding, which is seen by several processors as one route to high-speed molding of composite structures and components for automotive applications. The Pfinztal (Berghausen), Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute highlighted its R&D work with high-pressure compression RTM, developed in cooperation with KraussMaffei (Florence, Ky.) and Dieffenbacher (Windsor, Ontario, Canada). Mitsubishi Rayon (Tokyo, Japan) reported on its work in prepreg compression molding, which incorporates a 10-minute prepreg cutting process, a 10-minute preforming process and a 10-minute final molding process. Romeo RIM (Romeo, Mich.) described its new long fiber injection (LFI) system, said to be the largest in the world at 80 by 60 by 32 ft (24 by 18 by 9.7m) and featuring an inmold painting system. Fully decorated parts can be molded in 15 minutes.
This year’s ACCE featured several keynote speeches, and the first and possibly of greatest interest, was delivered by John Schweitzer, senior director – government affairs, at the American Composites Manufacturing Assn. (ACMA, Washington, D.C.). He outlined ACMA’s stance regarding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) recent listing of styrene as a potential carcinogen. ACMA is opposed to the listing because it handcuffs the composites industry, and Schweitzer focused heavily on the chemistry of styrene, research on the effects of styrene, and the science (or the lack thereof, said Schweitzer) behind the HHS determination. (CT will explore the styrene issue further in a story to be published early next year.)
On the second day of the conference, I moderated a panel that explored the sustainability of composites in automotive applications. The panel, featuring automotive composites experts from the U.S. and Europe, discussed how composites fit into the lifecycle analysis of a vehicle, reduce mass, increase fuel efficiency and improve crashworthiness. The basic message was clear: composites offer automakers an opportunity to meet many of the weight and fuel-efficiency challenges that face the industry.
But there was an ancillary message as well. Legacy materials (steel, aluminum) are entrenched in the auto industry, and moving automakers away from them toward composites will take prolonged and persistent work — and possibly a mandate, like the U.S. government’s new CAFE standards, which require 54.5 mpg (or equivalent) for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. In this light, it appears we’re in the midst of substantial materials change in the auto industry, and composites stand to benefit greatly.