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PLASTICS: Playing For Time?

Caught off guard by the ferocity with which steel defended its turf, the plastics industry is regrouping to tell automakers its side of the materials story.

What do you do when your material is a relatively new kid on the block, it doesn’t have dozens of case histories backing up each upgrade like its more established competitors, the computer-aided tools for it aren’t yet as plentiful, and past pronouncements on how it will sweep all the other available materials from its path have not even come close to being true? If you are the plastics industry, you try to learn from your mistakes and start over. “I don’t think anyone in the plastics industry thinks in terms of an all-plastics automotive nirvana out there anymore,” says Rob Krebs, director, Plastic Communications, American Chemistry Council. “Instead we see ourselves operating in a matrix with traditional materials to help OEMs reach their lightweighting and durability goals.”

Part of this is due to the fact that executives whose livelihood depends on strong sales for those other materials—especially steel—fought back by showing how new formulations and processes can reduce cost and weight without degrading strength, and retained an entrenched knowledge base built on approximately 100 years of practical experience. “It’s only in the past 50 years that plastics have come into their own,” says Krebs, “and only since the 1970s that we began graduating a growing number of polymer engineers who can manipulate the material at the molecular level in order to create new compounds or address new needs.” Nevertheless, he says: “Studies continue to show that, for many engineers in the auto industry, plastics still lies outside their comfort level.”

To combat that—and the perception that “lightweight” means “less safe”—the American Chemistry Council has put together 14 brief outlines of current thinking on how plastics can help OEMs reach their weight, durability, and crash targets. (The list includes: composite fuel tanks, composite driveshafts, composite front end, crumple zones, door interiors, plastic fuel tanks, headlamps, laminated glass, plastic foam, composite structures, roll over safety, self-reinforced plastics, size and weight studies, and steering columns.) These vignettes cover everything from plastic fuel tanks to composite driveshafts and front ends to full composite structures like that found on Porsche’s Carrera GT. It also covers the relationship between weight, vehicle size, and crashworthiness. “We are working with the national labs, USCAR, and the Recycling Partnership to answer end-of-life concerns as well as working with companies to create computer-aided design tools that eventually will cover everything from predictive engineering to recycling,” says Krebs. Still, the plastics industry has yet to put together a cohesive mix of near- and medium-term examples of its material’s unique properties and capabilities in the non-denominational and production-feasible form that worked so well for the steel industry. Without this, it will take time for polymer engineers to work their way into positions powerful enough to see that plastics technology gets a fair hearing. By that time, it might be too late.