The story planning journey

Automotive materials and process innovation in the driver’s seat.

Each year, about this time, as we leave cold weather behind us and look forward to warm summer months, our thoughts here at CW turn, believe it or not, to next year. Indeed, by the time
 you read this, we will be in the early stages of planning editorial content for 2018. We must look so far ahead so early because many of the stories we publish require the laying of substantial groundwork, followed by significant legwork.

Our story ideas come from CW’s editors and writers, who accrue leads from a variety of sources. In the past few years, story ideas have focused on some attention-worthy topics: thermoplastics, fast-cure thermosets, HP-RTM, compression molding, preforming, design simulation, fiber/tape placement, out-of-autoclave curing, process automation and Industry 4.0. Occasionally, we’ll look back at topics covered previously to see if an update is in order. We did this very thing a year ago and decided that sheet molding compound (SMC) deserved to be revisited.

This was not a difficult decision. SMC has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance, particularly in automotive applications, where SMC now competes well against aluminum. This is thanks mainly to new low-specific gravity (SG), E-coat-friendly SMC formulations that make the material a viable option in body panels and other semi-structural parts. In addition, the SMC manufacturing process, which relies on compression molding, is familiar to the automotive supply chain, thereby making it easier to integrate the material into vehicles. In short, it seemed there was enough “meat” on the SMC bone to make for a pretty good story. It was assigned to contributor Peggy Malnati, who has covered automotive composites for CW for many years.

I should not have been too surprised, then, when Peggy called me in February and started listing all that she was learning: How SMC has been resurrected by material suppliers and fabricators to become a viable and attractive option for autocomposites. And then she told me that she’d already written 5,000 words on the subject, and thought she could produce 5,000 more.

That’s why Part 1 of Peggy’s efforts, “SMC: Old dog, new tricks,” is in this issue. It is not 5,000 words (that’s what editors are for), but it is an extremely thorough primer on the current state of the SMC art, covering fibers, resins, specific gravity and applications. Part 2 of Peggy’s report, coming later this year, will take a closer look at fabrication technologies and applications.

As I read Part 1, I was struck by a couple of things. First, Ashland, Core Molding Technologies, CSP and other suppliers have invested significant money and effort to develop low-SG SMC materials designed specifically to compete with aluminum. Second, carbon fiber optimized for SMC represents a major evolution in SMC capabilities that are proving highly attractive to automakers. None of this is surprising, because the composites industry has always worked hard to respond to customer needs. What is impressive is the speed of the response, a nice fit for an auto supply chain that appreciates fast-paced innovation.

Also in the automotive vein is this issue’s “Thermoplastic composites: Occupant protection in transportation.” It falls into the “substantial groundwork” story category I referenced above. The part, a thermoplastic firewall for a Renault truck, I first saw at JEC World 2015. It won a JEC Innovation Award in 2016, and it’s taken us two years to pull technical information together and get approvals from all parties involved in the firewall’s development. This structure is significant because it embodies 
a multi-material/multi-process strategy (in this case, compression and injection molding) that is apparently attractive to auto OEMs because it offers the tailorability necessary to meet specific temperature, mechanical and physical loads, yet is a highly durable, lightweight alternative to legacy materials.

So, as we look ahead to 2018, where will our editorial travels take us? If there are materials, technologies, software, processes applications or end-markets that you think deserve special attention next year, now is the time to let me know. Send me your thoughts at jeff@compositesworld.com.