In the past two years, three major — and a growing host of minor — alliances between auto OEMs and/or tier suppliers and composite materials/processing companies have indicated a wholesale change in automaker inclinations toward the use of composites in body and chassis structures on production passenger vehicles. The big three? Automaker BMW and the SGL Group (Munich and Wiesbaden, Germany, respectively) broke the ice with plans to use carbon composites in the chassis and body panels of upcoming electric commuter cars. Detroit, Mich.-based General Motors and fiber source Teijin (Tokyo, Japan) followed up with a targeted part-per-minute process for carbon fiber/thermoplastics (see item on p. 11), and Japan-based giants Toyota, Toray Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries (all headquartered in Tokyo) said they will produce roofs and hoods for Toyota’s Lexus as early as this year. No news was more notable, however, than a fourth partnership announcement, April 12, from Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.) and Dow Automotive Systems (Auburn Hills, Mich.), a business unit of The Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, Mich.). Ford and Dow say they will research the use of advanced carbon-fiber composites in high-volume vehicles. No less notable is the fact that all four alliances are focused on carbon fiber. The Ford news is particularly striking because in 2009, Ford officials told CT that unless the cost of carbon fiber declined to $5/lb, the company would not consider the material for automotive structural components. Since then, the auto industry has been under increasing pressure to lightweight future vehicles, especially to compensate for battery weight in electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. That imperative now overshadows concerns about cost.
For its part, Ford says it is motivated to cut the weight of new cars and trucks by as much as 750 lb/340 kg by the end of the decade. The two companies have signed a joint development agreement that will see researchers collaborate on several fronts, including the establishment of an economical source of automotive-grade carbon fiber and developing component manufacturing methods for high-volume automotive applications. Ford is investigating a range of new materials, enhanced design processes and new manufacturing techniques that would enable automotive structures to meet increasingly stringent safety and quality standards while cutting weight. The joint development effort will leverage work that Dow already has begun through partnerships with Istanbul, Turkey-based carbon fiber manufacturer AKSA and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.). If successful, the joint effort could put carbon fiber components on new Ford vehicles in the latter part of this decade as product development teams work toward meeting new fuel efficiency standards of more than 50-mpg equivalent and extending the per-charge driving range of plug-in electric vehicles.
The partners say the effort will combine Ford’s experience in design, engineering and high-volume vehicle production with Dow Automotive’s strengths in R&D, materials science and high-volume polymer processing. “There are two ways to reduce energy use in vehicles: improving the conversion efficiency of fuels to motion and reducing the amount of work that powertrains need to do,” says Paul Mascarenas, Ford chief technical officer and VP of research and innovation. “Ford is tackling the conversion problem primarily through downsizing engines with EcoBoost and electrification, while mass reduction and improved aerodynamics are keys to reducing the workload.”
Says Florian Schattenmann, Dow Automotive’s R&D director, “This partnership with Ford on carbon fiber composites is a logical next step to progress already achieved through the use of lightweight, high-strength polymers and structural bonding technology.”