At its new and much larger venue, the Suburban Collection Showplace and adjoining Hyatt Place Hotel in Novi, Mich., the Society of Plastics Engineers’ (SPE) 13th annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition (ACCE) hosted nearly 900 attendees, offered a strong four-track program of well-attended papers (photo at right) and boasted a crowded exhibit hall (see center photo).
As always, conference presenters shared a wealth of information about innovations in part design, improved materials and more consistent, repeatable and efficient molding processes, citing notable examples of successful composite parts in production automobiles. Many of the innovations came from Europe, where automakers are scrambling to reduce vehicle weight to avoid strict financial penalties for failing to meet vehicle emission targets. 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, as they have at past conferences, reservations about full-scale adoption of composites.
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 automaker BMW (Munich, Germany) on molding the carbon fiber composite BMW i3 Life Module (passenger cell), among other parts. Using this technology, a three-minute cycle is almost within reach, says Winterhalter. A few days after the event, BMW formally began manufacture and assembly of its new all-electric i3 car in Germany, combining carbon fiber composites and injection molded plastics, as well as innovative production processes.
Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd.’s (Tokyo, Japan) Takeshi Ishikawa described a slit carbon fiber/thermoplastic sheet with “flowability” and high mechanical properties that can be quickly “stamped” or molded at relatively low pressure to create highly complex parts, including ribs. In fact, an entire track was devoted to carbon composites, with many speakers predicting that “strong” demand for carbon fiber in autos will accelerate after 2015.
A standout paper presented by Marcie Kurcz, North America business manager for resin maker Polyscope (Geleen, The Netherlands), outlined the design and manufacture of the semiconvertible sunroof frame for Paris, France-based auto OEM Citroen’s DS3 Cabrio model. Designed by Webasto (Munich, Germany) and molded by Shaper (La Séguinière, France), the frame is molded with 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 compared to other considered materials; it is an example of a viable “value proposition” that clearly favored the 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 robotically sprayed directly on the mold surface, a preform is placed over it and the laminate is heated and cured under relatively low pressure in a Quickstep hot-fluid machine. The resin flows in the z-direction to wet out the fiber and produces a Class A finish. According to Brosius, a cycle time of 10 minutes is possible.
Several papers and keynotes discussed new and ongoing industry collaborations aimed at increasing the usage of composites on high-production vehicles. Greg Rucks of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI, Snowmass, Colo.) discussed his group’s “launch pad,” which aims to reduce a vehicle’s cost and ensure its life cycle value by means of composites. Electing to focus on a few parts on mainstream models for fleets, such as a door inner that doesn’t require a cosmetic finish, RMI is pulling together a supply chain team to create an “innovation hub” expected 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.) and Mario Greco of Alcoa (Pittsburgh, Pa., see photo on left side, p. 21). A point repeatedly raised by panel members was that composites technology is certainly possible and attractive, but adoption repeatedly stalls when the industry tries to make a business case because material cost is high and processing issues remain unresolved. Additional challenges center around attachments and fastening, said several panel members. As in previous years, panelists agreed that predictive analysis software, training and education are still lacking in many cases, which hampers familiarity with composites. And most asserted that life cycle analysis (LCA) is becoming more important to both the OEMs and consumers; 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 HPC’s sister publication, Composites Technology magazine. Visit the SPE Automotive Division Web site (www.speautomotive.com/aca) to find out about future events.