Highlights from the 2013 SPE ACCE

The 13th annual edition of the Society of Plastics Engineer's Automotive Division composites conference is the largest ever, at a new venue.

At its new venue, the Suburban Collection Showplace and adjoining Hyatt Place Hotel in Novi, Mich., the Society of Plastics Engineers’ (SPE) ACCE event hosted nearly 900 attendees, a strong four-track program of papers and a crowded exhibit hall. As always, presenters provided a wealth of information on improved materials, improved and faster processes and innovations in part design, citing notable examples of successful composite parts in production autos. Many of the innovations seemed to come from Europe, where automakers are scrambling to reduce vehicle weight to avoid strict financial penalties for failing to meet vehicle emission targets. And, despite one presenter’s statement that “the BMW i3/i8 program is equivalent to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program for automotive composites,” some OEM representatives expressed oft-heard reservations about full-scale adoption of composite materials.

Notable papers included one on molding technology from Schuler SMG GmbH & Co. (Waghäusel, Germany) by Patric Winterhalter, who discussed vacuum assisted high-pressure resin transfer molding (RTM) for carbon fiber car elements; Schuler is working with BMW on molding of the BMW i3 Life Module, among other parts. With the technology, a 3-minute cycle is almost within reach, says Winterhalter. Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd.’s (Tokyo, Japan) Takeshi Ishikawa described a slit carbon fiber/thermoplastic sheet with “flowability” and high mechanical properties than can be quickly “stamped” or molded at relatively low pressure to create highly complex parts, even ribs. In fact, an entire track was devoted to carbon composites, with many speakers opining that “strong” demand for carbon fiber in autos will accelerate after 2015.

A standout paper was presented by Marcie Kurcz, North America business manager for resin maker Polyscope (Geleen, The Netherlands), regarding design and manufacture of the semi-convertible sunroof frame for the Citroen DS3 Cabrio model, designed by Webasto (Munich, Germany) and molded by Shaper (La Séguinière, France) using a modified glass-reinforced styrene maleic anhydride (SMA) resin from Polyscope. The composite part offers significant cost savings over other materials, part integration (seven parts were combined into one) and a 40 percent weight reduction over other materials considered, and offers an example of a viable “value proposition” that clearly favored selection of composites. In another session, there was considerable audience interest in a process approach offered by Dale Brosius of Quickstep Composites LLC (Dayton, Ohio) called Resin Spray Transfer (RST). In this fast-cycle method, the structural resin is actually robotically sprayed directly on the mold, with a preform placed over it, followed by cure in a Quickstep hot-fluid machine. The resin flows in the z-direction to wet out the fiber, while producing a Class A finish. According to Brosius, cycle time of 10 minutes is possible.

Several papers and keynotes discussed new and ongoing industry collaborations aimed at increasing usage of composites on high-production vehicles. Greg Rucks of the Rocky Mountain Institute (Snowmass, Colo.) discussed his group’s “launch pad” that aims to reduce vehicle cost and ensure life cycle value with composites. With a focus on just a few parts on mainstream models for fleets, such as a door inner that doesn’t require a cosmetic finish, the RMI is pulling together a supply chain team to create an innovation hub to produce parts by 2018.

This year for the first time, the industry discussion panel included two representatives from the aluminum industry: Doug Richman of Kaiser Aluminum (Bingham Farms, Mich., USA) and Mario Greco of Alcoa (Pittsburgh, Pa., USA). A point repeatedly raised by the panel members was that composites technology is certainly possible, and attractive, but adoption repeatedly stalls when the industry tries to make a business case, with high material cost and processing issues yet evolving. Issues centered around attachments and fastening simply aren’t solved yet, said several panel members. As in previous years, predictive analysis software, training and education needs still exist, which hampers familiarity with composites. And most agreed that life cycle analysis (LCA) is becoming more important to both the OEMs and consumers, and those LCA analyses show that carbon fiber does not fare as well as aluminum, which enjoys a huge and global recycling push.

For more about this event, watch for expanded coverage in the December issue of Composites Technology magazine. See the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division website (http://www.speautomotive.com/aca) for presentations.