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Plastic's Possible Future

From engineering and product perspectives, the characteristics of plastics for automotive applications that Dr. Michael M. Fisher, director, Technology, American Plastics Council (APC; Arlington, VA), cites are interesting and impressive

From engineering and product perspectives, the characteristics of plastics for automotive applications that Dr. Michael M. Fisher, director, Technology, American Plastics Council (APC; Arlington, VA), cites are interesting and impressive. Among them are:

  • Strength, durability and light weight
  • The ability to resist chemicals and environmental conditions
  • The ability to tailor their visual properties (e.g., they can be made clear, translucent, or opaque)
  • The ability to make them electrically or thermally conductive.

All in all, their potential (and actual) properties ought to give automotive designers and engineers something to think about. And, Fisher notes, there has already been more than consideration so far as the polymers are concerned: Although vehicles are lighter today than they were back in 1970, then 60 lb. of plastic were used per vehicle and now 240 lb. per vehicle are employed. But Fisher is looking ahead. He's looking at plastic's potential.

In a novel by David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System, a new vehicle manufacturer is posited: Mattel. No, this is not for producing Barbie's® Dream Car, but vehicles for real people. In Plastics In Automotive Markets: Vision and Technology Roadmap, the plastic car is posited, as well. It says, "By 2020, the automotive industry will have established plastics as the material of choice in the design of all major automotive components and systems." Note well the use of the exclusive adjective all. Plastics In Automotive Markets is not a work of fiction. Rather, it is a document that the APC Automotive Group developed to put all interested parties on the same proverbial page. And so far as Fisher is concerned, the document is one of the most important developments in the plastics industry in some time. It is a work that describes what needs to be done in order for the creation of the "plastic-intensive vehicle."

To be sure, if you look around a vehicle, you'll discover that plastics, in effect, "own" the interior. With regard to the interior, Fisher describes plastic as being "the material of choice." And, arguably, plastics is the choice for body panels on specialty vehicles, ranging from the smart car to the Chevrolet Corvette. But Fisher says, "Body panels, in our view, are an emerging and growing opportunity. We can be very competitive." He admits, however, that there is plenty of work to be done in order to move the materials to more exterior applications from, say, front and rear fascias and a variety of trim panels, in mainstream cars. And that work is described in Plastics In Automotive Markets.

So what are some of the things that need to be done? There are issues related to the materials. Fisher notes that because the area is organic chemistry, there are plenty of things that can be accomplished through polymer developments. And while there are things like nanocomposites that could be aborning (and don't think this is science fiction, because nanocomposites are being used on present GM Astro and Safari vans), a more pedestrian but no less important an area of consideration is polymer systems that provide a Class A finish without being painted. Consequently, although plastics may be more expensive than steel, the elimination of a paint shop would go a long way toward making plastics economically competitive.

Today, plastics are being used under the hood in a variety of applications, including intake manifolds and valve covers. Gas tanks are often being made of polymer due to their ability to be formed in such a way so as to accommodate packaging. But as the auto industry looks ahead, there are promising applications for plastics inside of fuel cells.

But the area that seems to be most compelling as the plastics industry looks forward is the possibility of plastics for chassis/drivetrain applications, for polymer-based systems to be used in both semi-structural and fully structural applications. On the one hand, there is the issue of developing the materials (e.g., new reinforcement materials) to make this a possibility. But on the other hand, there is another issue, which is, quite simply, that the auto industry is, by and large, an industry that is based on stamping and welding metals.

Fisher acknowledges that. But he also points out, "At some point, there will be drivers to turn over the infrastructure." In other words, at some point—perhaps before 2020—the case will be sufficiently compelling for some people in automotive to question the long-prevailing business structure and determine that factors like the need for shorter design cycles and the need for lower-cost tooling to accommodate them, or the need for regionalized manufacturing and the consequent requirement for lower investments in machinery and equipment may make plastic a material of choice.

The plastic-intensive vehicle is not going to be something that is going to be a direct, one-for-one analog of a steel-based vehicle. It is going to be necessary for the entire rethinking of the ways that vehicles are designed, engineered, and produced. It will require, in effect, a clean-sheet approach.

Beyond the work that must be done by the plastics producers in their chemistry labs, there is a lot of development work that must be done in order to make the proliferation of plastics possible. For one thing, there is plenty of knowledge that designers and product engineers—at OEMs as well as at supplier companies—have with regard to designing and processing steel. But this knowledge is not as widespread with regard to plastics. There is the need for more engineering data to provide designers and engineers with a better understanding of material capabilities and characteristics. There is a need for better computer-aided engineering tools that can help designers and engineers actually determine the performance of plastics in applications. One area that is particularly important in this regard is predictive modeling with regard to the long-term performance of polymers in automotive applications.

Of course, before that is going to happen in earnest, there is a need for more designers and engineers to be educated with regard to plastics. This is going to be education not only related to the materials' properties, but also about how the materials are processed. (Speaking of processing, there need to be improvements there, too, with regard to faster molding, improved assembly, and lower-cost tooling, just to mention a few things.)

To make all of this happen, Fisher admits that there will need to be partnerships established between those people and organizations—private and public, educational and governmental—who are involved in the supply chain. Although this will require lots of work—and Fisher recognizes that the people who are interested in the fortunes of other materials are not sitting on their hands—the potential for the plastics industry may make it all worthwhile. 

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