SPE&'s Automotive Composites Conference
Advances in materials and design were on display at the 5th annual Automotive Composites Conference, presented jointly by the Automotive and Composites divisions of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE). Held Sept. 12-14 at Michigan State University's (MSU) Management Education Center (Troy, Mich.), the conference was chaired by Klaus Gleich of Johns Manville Corp. (Denver, Colo.). The event emphasized international as well as domestic innovations, living up to its theme "Composites: Providing Global Vehicle Solutions."
The conference's 300 participants were treated to seven keynote speakers, two high-profile panel discussions, 47 technical papers and nearly 30 exhibitors covering a broad range of topics in the auto composites arena, from long fiber thermoplastics to hybrid components and carbon fiber body panels. SMC technology was greatly underrepresented at the conference, indicating issues with painting have largely been resolved, or that only modest development activities are occurring with this technology.
In a keynote address, Dr. Frank Henning of Fraunhofer ICT (Pfintztal, Germany) noted that "innovation is the key to sustainability and long term success," especially in the high-wage countries of Western Europe and North America. "We must integrate functions, not just save weight, to get the OEMs to pay," he added. In this vein, Marco Wacker of Jacob Composites GmbH (Wilhelmsdorf, Germany) delivered a presentation on the collaborative efforts between Jacob and Lotus Engineering (Hethel, Norwich, U.K.) on the development of continuous-fiber thermoplastic composite front crash structures. They have achieved predictable and positive energy management results with fiberglass-reinforced nylons, molding at pressures below 100 psi (7 bar). Long fiber thermoplastics are being targeted at exterior applications, generally combined with colored film coatings, as evidenced in several presentations by GE Plastics (Southfield, Mich.).
In the thermoset arena, Stanley Lobst presented the results of an Automotive Composites Consortium (ACC) project to produce a B-pillar using directed fiber preforms and structural RIM molding. ACC has, to date, produced glass-reinforced parts in four-minute cycles for each station, but to achieve the desired structural performance they will need to incorporate carbon fiber in the design. Dr. Larry Drzal noted the growing potential for natural fibers and resins in automotive composites, driven by interest in "green" materials, and a separate session on natural fibers featured six papers.
The two panel sessions provided lively exchanges of opinions among the participants. The opening day panel on "Composites in Niche Vehicles" featured Don Lasell of Vermont Composites, Steve Formella of American Specialty Cars, Dave Zajac of Rousch Industries and Rick Perry of MSX International. The discussion turned quickly to the role of carbon fiber, with Lasell emphasizing this material will make real inroads "when the U.S. has a strategy to reduce dependence on foreign oil." Zajac noted a difference in European and U.S. OEM expectations on surface finish; perhaps a reason carbon has seen more application in European sports cars.
The conference closed with a panel titled "The Future of Automotive Composites," which included Saad Abouzahr of DaimlerChrysler, Mike Bernas of Toyota, Dave Mattis of General Motors, Richard Jeryan of Ford and Kevin Smith of Tier One supplier Decoma International. Abouzahr noted that in improving fuel economy, lowering vehicle mass has to compete with aerodynamics and engine improvements, and that in the past twenty years, aluminum has leapt past composites in ease of implementation for this task. Jeryan pointed out that Ford has taken advantage of technology developed by the ACC to produce braided A-pillars and body side panels for several Aston Martin vehicles now in production, with expectations of further capitalization on this cooperative effort. Toyota's Bernas and GM's Mattis suggested a key area where composites will bring value in chassis structures is in fuel cell vehicles, where a "clean sheet" opportunity still exists.