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12/1/2008 | 9 MINUTE READ

2008 SPE Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition

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The annual gathering of automotive composites experts revealed significant effort to make composites more affordable and efficient and mold cycle times faster.


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The 8th annual Society of Plastics Engineers’ (SPE) Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition (ACCE) was held Sept. 16-18 at Michigan State University’s Management Education Center in Troy, Mich., presented jointly by the SPE’s Automotive and Composites Divisions. The conference, themed “The Road to Lightweight Performance,” treated the 380-plus attendees to 61 technical papers, nine keynote speeches, a panel discussion, an exhibit area and the opportunity to network and socialize with other composites and automotive professionals. Chaired by Dale Brosius of Quickstep Technologies (Brighton, Mich.), the ACCE, noted several speakers, has become the world’s leading automotive composites forum, attracting visitors and presenters not only from the Americas, but from Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East as well.

Delivering his keynote address before the recent financial woes that sent petroleum prices plummeting, Joseph Carpenter, technology development manager at the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), claimed that despite the mid-2008 run-up in the price of oil, an increase in the use of composites by the auto industry is not a given and growth will have to be earned on the basis of price and performance. Carpenter noted that there are 1 billion vehicles in use worldwide, virtually all of them operating on gas derived from conventional petroleum. By 2050, he predicted, there will be about 3.5 billion vehicles in use and demand for oil will outstrip conventional petroleum production in 10 to 30 years — although he noted there is still many hundreds of years of oil supply in unconventional sources, such as oil shale. Carpenter contended that lightweighting will be a key to vehicle fuel efficiency, observing that a 10 percent reduction in vehicle mass results in a 6 percent increase in fuel economy. He cautioned, however, that significant barriers to enhanced composites use remain, including their still high cost and the auto industry’s lack of familiarity with the materials.

Technical papers ran the gamut of composites technology — thermoplastics, thermosets, virtual prototyping, structural composites, new composites materials and processes, nanocomposites, enabling tech-nologies, bonding, joining and finishing and bio-resin and natural-fiber composites. A number of papers detailed breakthroughs. Charles Buehler, materials engineer at General Motors Corp. (GM, Flint, Mich.), and Quantum Leap Packaging’s (QLP, Wilmington, Mass.) CTO, Mike Zimmerman, detailed a “revolutionary” polymer material targeted to metal replacement. Buehler said the polymer could be on cars within six months. The nanofilled, modified liquid crystal polymer, developed by QLP in cooperation with GM, reportedly offers benefits that include a low coefficient of expansion (similar to steel), high stiffness and a density comparable to magnesium. “The entire direction of the auto business is lightweighting, closing gaps and controlling dimensional stability,” Buehler noted, claiming, “This polymer helps in all those areas.”

Suresh Shah, senior technical fellow at Delphi Corp. (Troy, Mich.), outlined trends and new applications for underhood components. Shah says the development of high-temperature materials with heat resistance up to 220°C/ 428°F will enable engineers to “push the envelope” for new powertrain applications, but noted that the cost of these materials might remain a concern. Shah also said there is a need for advanced predictive engineering techniques and molding processes capable of meeting high-tolerance requirements. Matthew Marks, the market development manager for SABIC Innovative Plastics (Pittsfield, Mass.), reported that his company’s long-glass fiber polypropylene (LGF PP) now is used by 10 OEMs to make door modules. Marks said the next phase of this trend is the use of LGF PP to injection mold rear hatchback doors. 

The first day’s session closed with a wide-ranging and, occasionally, passionate panel discussion on the future of automotive composites. Dave Wagner, technical leader, Vehicle Design Research at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.), said the biggest unknown in the trend to higher fuel economy vehicles is consumer preference. “We can change our marketing strategy much faster than the weight of the powertrain,” said Wagner. John Snider, engineering group manager at GM, noted the auto industry needs analytical tools to reduce the amount of validation testing. “We need to get a better idea if a material is going to work without having to crash test 20 vehicles,” Snider said. DoE’s Carpenter argued that the composites industry is hindered by its lack of organization and inability to speak with one voice, unlike the aluminum and steel industries. Composites suppliers and manufacturers must do a better job of selling the advantages of composites in comparison to steel, aluminum and magnesium, said Tom Stanley, VP, technology, at SABIC. These include lower tooling costs, better parts integration and more styling flexibility.

David Dyke, director of product development at Meridian Automotive Systems (Auburn Hills, Mich.), began day two’s opening keynote by reporting that OEMs will be manufacturing 1 million hybrid electrics a year by 2012. Dyke described a project conducted jointly by the Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA) and the Automotive Composites Manufacturing Assn. (ACMA, Arlington, Va.) in which a hybrid vehicle was disassembled to analyze its design and material content. Dyke reported the hybrid “was loaded with metal.” Dyke says shorter auto model build cycles should play into the hands of composites, but the industry has to do a better job of teaching young engineers about the materials’ benefits. He noted that the electrical resistance properties of composites will make them ideal for electric vehicles.

A number of papers earned SPE ACCE Awards. Edward Zenk, senior development engineer at Navistar Inc. (Warren, Ill.), and co-authors from Core Molding Technologies (Columbus, Ohio) and Ashland Inc. (Dublin, Ohio), were among the winners, capturing the award for best paper in Composites Applications. Zenk described a case study in which Navistar and partners molded 40 truck hoods from a low-mass nanoclay-and mineral-filled SMC, resulting in 20 lb/9 kg weight savings per part.

Stewart Davis, Livia Cevolini and Giampiero Testoni of CRP Technology Srl (Modena, Italy) and CRP Racing were co-winners in the Processing and Enabling Technologies category for their paper on the rapid manufacture of a motorbike dashboard using the company’s carbon-fiber-filled resin, Windform XT, and a selective laser sintering machine from 3D Systems Inc. (Valencia, Calif.). (Read about this project in the "Focus on Design" feature under "Editor's Picks" at right.) Phil Maniscalchi, an engineer with Mold-Tech (Fraser, Mich.), was the other winner in the category for his paper, which summarized a study of texture characteristics and their effects on texture performance. A team from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Material Science and William Goddard III, from the California Institute of Materials and Process Simulation Center, captured the award in the category of New Materials for a paper that described how his group developed a nanostructured polymer fuel-cell membrane, using a computational nanotechnology approach.

SABIC Innovative Plastics and SABIC PP announced at the conference that they are making Stamax polypropylene long-glass fiber resins available worldwide. Previously, Stamax had been offered only in Europe. SABIC and Azdel Inc. (Forest, Va.) also announced the launch of a new hybrid thermoplastic composite, Ixis 157, a continuous glass-fiber-reinforced sandwich composite targeted to horizontal automotive body panels. Ixis comprises a random glass fiber reinforced core, approximately 50 percent glass by weight, with 0°/90° skins of continuous unidirectional fiber reinforced thermoplastic.

Martin Starkey, development manager at Gurit UK (Isle of Wight, U.K.), reported that the company’s $4 million (USD) investment in a pilot plant to manufacture production-ready carbon fiber composite auto parts is operational. The U.K.-based 20,000-ft²/1,858m² facility currently molds the carbon-fiber composite hood, the rear decklid and the front and rear fenders for automaker Aston Martin’s DBS sports car (see “Learn More,” at right). The plant is designed with nine manufacturing cells that cut, assemble, mold, machine and paint the Class A exterior body panels, starting with standard prepreg laminate kits. Since the plant’s start up in November 2007, Gurit has succeeded in reducing mold cycle time by 50 percent. Current cycle time on the nickel-shell molds is about 90 minutes. Starkey says the company is striving to reduce cycle time further by optimizing debulking and tool modifications to reduce tool heat-up time and accelerate cool down. “We have a blueprint to move to a large-scale operation in Eastern Europe,” said Starkey, although he did not specify a target date or location.

Dr. Peter Foss, who works at GM’s research and development center, detailed the company’s efforts to develop a long-fiber, glass-filled PP rear liftgate with suitable ductility and crash resistance. Foss reported that challenges encountered on this project include modeling the forces on the liftgate and accounting for a 30 percent decrease in stiffness of fiber-filled PP in high-heat, desert-like environments. Rena Pomville, from American Compounding Specialties Inc. (Fowlerville, Mich.), explored ways of reducing the cost of compounded composite materials that involve adjusting processing parameters and/or substituting materials. Paul Stassen, director, sales and marketing at Addcomp Holland BV (Nijverdal, The Netherlands), and Frank Henning, director of polymer engineering at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (Pfinztal, Germany), showed how the use of new, ultrapure coupling agents can enhance the stiffness and other properties of olefinic LFT and D-LFT composites.

In his keynote speech on composites use in racing bikes, James Colgrove, senior composites manufacturing engin-eer at Waterloo, Wis.-based Trek Bikes, reported on the company’s efforts to optimize the use of carbon fiber in the design of Trek’s latest racing model, the Madone 2008. Colgrove said today’s bike industry is as much about style and fashion as it is about speed, noting that biker’s are demanding “sweeping lines and hard edges.” He said the company built eight different rapid prototypes just to look at different designs. The Madone 2008 frame weighs a mere 1.9 lb/0.86 kg, and Colgrove admitted that Trek might have reached the limit in the use of carbon fiber to improve the weight-to-stiffness ratio of racing bike frames. 

The conference concluded with what observers considered to be two “blockbuster” keynote speeches. In one, Matt Tsien, GM’s executive director, Global Technology Engineering, told the audience that GM’s strategy to globalize and transform its vehicle design and production platforms includes greater use of carbon fiber. GM currently uses carbon fiber composites in only one production vehicle, the Corvette Z06. The Z06 has a carbon fiber hood, front fender, wheelhouse and passenger compartment floor. “Carbon fiber is absolutely great but absolutely too expensive,” Tsien said. In order to enhance the use of carbon fiber on future vehicles, GM has launched a project to drive down the cost. The main features of the project include converting completely to industrial-grade carbon fiber from the company’s current 60/40 split between industrial and aerospace grade. GM also is working with a Tier 2 supplier in the development of new types of carbon fiber prepregs. The other top-flight keynoter was Toru Yamanaka of Toray Industries Inc. (Tokyo, Japan), who reported that a recent collaborative research project in Japan has yielded a breakthrough technology that dramatically reduces the production cycle time for carbon fiber composite parts using a resin transfer molding (RTM) process. Participants in the project, called “Automotive Lightweight Structure Elements of Carbon Composites,” included Toray, automaker Nissan and five Japanese universities. The team developed a process that reduced the resin impregnation step from 35 minutes to only 3 minutes, and the resin cure step from 90 minutes to 5 minutes, resulting in an overall cycle time of 10 minutes. Among the key technical breakthroughs were the development of an “anionic polymerized epoxy resin with a chain transfer agent” and a variety of improvements in the impregnation method, including the use of multi-injection-gate tooling and high permeability fabrics, according to Yamanaka.

Conference chair Dale Brosius brought the conference to a close promising another high-quality conference next year.