The global automotive plastics industry is in boom mode today. Improvements in vehicle design and the ongoing trend toward lighter weight for improved fuel efficiency have led to greater demand for engineering plastic components. A recent study by Grand View Research predicted that the auto plastics market will reach $41.5 billion by 2020.
The most common parts produced from engineering thermoplastics (ETPs) include electrical system components, battery boxes, insulation, engine intake manifolds, steering wheels, and interior panels. The materials' mainstay benefits continue to aid the growing share of auto parts being captured, including aesthetics, resistance to scratching and corrosion, thermal stability, and, perhaps most of all now, volume-to-weight ratio.
Plastic components weigh up to 50 percent less than their equivalents in other materials. Less weight means better gas mileage, which will help vehicles become compliant with U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFE) and state emissions regulations. According to industry association Plastics Europe, 5 percent less weight in a car will translate to an average fuel savings of 3 percent.
Since 2008, average vehicle weights have dropped by about 20 percent. A typical car today has about 300 pounds of plastics, or approximately 8 percent by weight. This percentage is guaranteed to climb in the future.
A WardsAuto survey published in July by Penton Market Research and sponsored by DuPont found that about half of automotive design and engineering personnel cited lightweighting as the primary approach to lowering vehicle emissions and improving fuel economy. This reduction in car weight will be achieved in part with engineering plastics, advanced composites, and multimaterial and hybrid material solutions, but there is still work to be done.
According to Brian Fish, automotive development director for DuPont Performance Polymers, the kind of advancements that still need to happen in materials science will require a collaborative approach throughout the industry.
"Certainly, lightweighting is one of the key drivers to hit with new regulations," Fish told ThomasNet News. "It's not just plastics that are going to deliver the lightweighting. There are advancements in switching from steel to aluminum, but certainly plastics are going to play a major role if automakers are going to hit those regulations. We'll start seeing engineering plastics show up in powertrain, chassis, and transmission applications."
But it's not only about weight. Fish says engineering thermoplastics can also boost efficiency in some applications and allow automakers to reach higher performance requirements under the hood, particularly at higher temperatures. DuPont has made advancements from a chemistry standpoint and considers automotive thermoplastics to be a serious growth market.
There's also a cost benefit to plastics. Many parts today are being produced faster and cheaper with injection molding and blow molding. These processes allow parts to be produced to near net shape and eliminate expensive hand finishing processes. Their metal equivalents must be formed, welded, stamped, and finished in various ways. Plastics are also more flexible when it comes to part shapes that can be produced; they are often able to meet configurations that would be largely impossible with metals.
Steve Russell, vice president for plastics at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), told ThomasNet News that there has been a real revolution in both materials and processes, and this has come at a beneficial time, amid both fuel efficiency and regulatory drivers. New innovations in processing ETP parts have improved cycle times and reduced costs.
"It's a very fortuitous convergence of technology and regulatory driver," Russell said. "It's also about the materials themselves. There are space-age material capabilities that have been available to Boeing and Airbus for a while but are now available to GM and Ford."
Russell is speaking of today's truly lightweight polymer composites, as well as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics. These are materials that first debuted in Formula One race cars years ago but then started to show up in exotic and high-end consumer vehicles and now have begun to appear even in economy models, as cost barriers that once existed have largely disappeared.
"You can make a polymer composite using different types of fibers, but the most recent resolution is carbon fiber," Russell said. "It's so light, so strong, and so incredibly versatile. It gives manufacturers the ability to design in very different ways."
Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) are also showing up in new areas of vehicles, thanks to its unique properties, according to Russell.
"When you think plastics in the car, you think of airbags and foam cushions," he said. "Most people don't think of structural elements made out of plastics. The range of parts in which plastics are showing up is truly remarkable." He points to the BMW i3 and its entire chassis made out of CFRP. "It has demonstrated a capability to be used in a massive structural way."
This isn't to say there aren't drawbacks with plastics. Grand View Research noted in its report that the growth numbers for automotive plastics in the years ahead will likely be affected by increasingly volatile raw materials prices. At the moment, oil capacity added in the Middle East has brought downstream prices down, but this hasn't always been — and won't always be — the case.
"Some of the basic raw materials required for manufacturing automotive plastics — ethylene and propylene — are petrochemicals that have numerous applications across various end-use industries," Grand View Research's senior research analyst, Anshuman Bahuguna, told ThomasNet News. "This constant increase and decrease in prices of key raw materials put pressure on the profitability of automotive plastics manufacturers and can act as a major restraint to growth."
Peter Tackx, director of sales and business development for Netherlands-based Polyscope Polymers, a supplier to BMW, told ThomasNet News that juggling market volatility will require different sourcing strategies over the different regions where raw materials are produced, whether it's shale gas in the United States or naphtha- and oil-based plastics from the Middle East.
Obviously, there are considerable opportunities for Asian players in China and India, as the Grand View Research report noted, but many experts say that quality improvements in polymer science need to happen in that region first, as well as better organization of the markets in those countries, which look like a bit of a free-for-all today.
"For the moment, we believe that influence from Asia, from a polymer point of view, into European- and U.S.-built cars is still limited due to lack of quality," Tackx said. "But, for sure, cost-price pressure will remain and could result in bigger plastics imports from Asia."
At the consumer end, it helps that buyers see high-end models such as the BMW i3 using plastics influentially throughout the car. It can help eliminate plastics' cheesy-and-cheap stereotype and bring buyers more into a high-tech material frame of mind. At the same time, these new lighter vehicles made increasing from engineering plastics will help consumers considerably at the gas pump.