The markets: Automotive (2017)

The world’s automakers are a mere two model development cycles from US CAFE and EU emissions compliance due dates in the 2020-2025 timeframe. Faced with a one-two punch in fuel-economy and carbon-dioxide (CO2) emission standards, lightweighting has become a vehicle design imperative.

Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the US require manufacturers to achieve a fleet average of 35.5 mpg this year and will soar to 54.5 mpg by 2025. In the European Union (EU), CO2 emissions restrictions will reduce passenger cars emission limits from 130g of CO2/km today to much more difficult-to-achieve 95g of CO2/km in 2020. Automakers are a mere two model development cycles from the compliance due dates. Faced with the one-two punch in fuel-economy and carbon-dioxide (CO2) emission standards, lightweighting has become a design imperative.

Although composites remain a viable candidate as the means of compliance via lightweighting of next-generation vehicles, the competition showed it is unlikely to yield without a fight. As early as 2012, the new concept on every auto industry commentator’s agenda was the “multi-material vehicle.” Although glass fiber-reinforced, and more recently carbon fiber-reinforced composites, both thermoplastic and thermoset, were making assaults on a variety of parts under the hood and in the body-in-white, manufacturers of legacy aluminum and steel went back to the lab and did a great job of developing lighter alloys that have, since then, eroded the cost/benefit advantage of composites.

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That said, composites are already well-entrenched in the automotive world, and that includes carbon composites. Dr. Sanjay Mazumdar, CEO of Lucintel (Irving, TX, US), a global market research and management consulting firm, told CW in July that in fiscal year 2015, the total worldwide demand for carbon composite products in the automotive industry — roof panels, body frame, closure panels and more — reached a value of US$2.4 billion. The market for them is expected to grow to US$6.3 billion in 2021, with a high compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 17%. He noted that this is because the need is critical to reduce vehicle weight toward the end goal of increasing fuel economy and emissions reduction. Behind the industry’s multi-material mantra, Muzamdar noted, Lucintel’s interviews with automaker execs revealed they must develop automotive structural parts with 50% weight-savings potential. Although they are looking into lightweight materials that include advanced high-strength steel (AHSS, steel with tensile strength that exceeds 780 MPa), aluminum, magnesium and CFRP, only the latter offers the potential for weight savings greater than that 50% threshold. For that reason, this CFRP is receiving great attention. Currently, most major automakers, such as BMW, Mercedes, Ford and GM, he says, are focusing on developing what he calls “transformational technologies” able to incorporate CFRP in mass-volume cars as a means to meet the stringent government guidelines. That said, auto OEM execs were clear that barriers remain to the achievement of that goal:

  • Fiber cost: Reduction in the price of carbon fiber is critical to making CFRP parts competitive with steel and aluminum parts. The high price of carbon fiber restricts potential leverage in many applications. For example, automotive OEMs demand carbon fiber within the range of US$5-US$7/lb; however, the current price is approximately US$8-US$15/lb for automotive applications.
  • Transformative technology: There is a great emphasis on reducing part fabrication cost via automation, simulation and rapid cycle time. There is a greater need for faster, more mature composites technologies targeting 1-2 minute cycle times for mass-volume markets. Most current carbon composites part manufacturing processes are slow and take several minutes to make the part. Automation and development of suitable material systems and technologies are required to gain wider acceptance of carbon composites in mass markets.
  • Recycling: There is a greater need than ever before to address recycling of composite parts if CFRP is to be used in mainstream applications. For example, automakers are reluctant to use composites in a major way until the recycling issue can be addressed, out of concerns driven driven by government regulations, such as the European Union’s automobile end-of-life directives.
  • Repair: Repairing composites is a big challenge. Until repair can be done efficiently, its wider acceptance in mass vehicle platforms will be stalled. Auto OEMs explain that for steel and aluminum, they have well developed repair technologies, but these have not been developed for CFRP parts.

Elsewhere, additive manufacturing came rather spectacularly to the automotive world’s attention in the 2014-2015 timeframe with the world’s first 3D-printed composite body for an automobile. Conceived as a showcase for large-scale 3D printing capabilities developed through a public/private partnership anchored by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN), the passenger cell or tub (seat frames, cockpit, hood and tail) and four fenders — five pieces total — for the 680-kg, battery-powered two-seater Strati were printed in 44 hours at the 2014 IMTS show (Sept. 8-13, Chicago, IL, US). Since then, ORNL and partners Cincinnati Incorporated (Cincinnati, Ohio), the builder of the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine, which used a chopped carbon fiber-reinforced ABS to form the car’s body parts, and custom car designer/builder Local Motors (Knoxville, TN, US) have duplicated the feat, printing a Ford Shelby Cobra body and, most recently, the Local Motors-developed Olli, a composites-intensive, multi-passenger, autonomous mini-bus designed for urban mass-transit.

But in 2016, the more significant use for 3D printing in automotive mass production was shaping up to be toolmaking: At CAMX 2016 (Sept. 27-29, 2016) ORNL took top honors in ACMA’s ACE Awards’ the Manufacturing: Material and Process Innovation category not for car body parts but for its "3D Printing of High-Temperature Thermoplastic Molds." And 3D printed tooling is already looking like serious business: Stratasys Inc. (Minneapolis, MN, US), for one, launched two new pieces of additive manufacturing technology at IMTS 2016 (Sept. 12-17, Chicago, IL, US). They integrate core additive manufacturing technologies with industrial motion control hardware and design-to-3D printing software capabilities provided by Siemens PLM Software Inc. (Washington, DC, US), delivering “true” 3D printing by using an 8-axis motion that enables precise, directional material placement for strength while also reducing the need for speed-hindering support strategies. The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is designed to address the requirements of aerospace, automotive and other industries for large lightweight, thermoplastic parts with repeatable mechanical properties. It features a new approach to FDM extrusion that reportedly increases throughput and repeatability. The system’s “infinite-build” approach prints on a vertical plane for practically “unlimited part size in the build direction,” the company Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI, US), for one, is exploring auto manufacturing applications for this demonstrator, and will evaluate this new technology. Ford and Stratasys will work together to test and develop new applications for automotive-grade 3D-printed materials that were not previously possible. 

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