This year, the Society of Plastics Engineer’s Automotive Composite Conference & Exhibition (ACCE) was relocated from the outgrown Michigan State University Management Education Center (Troy, Mich.) to the Suburban Collection Showcase in nearby Novi. A good thing. ACCE exhibitors doubled, and last year’s record 630 attendees paled compared to the 897 registered this year — one indication that auto OEMs could be ready for pervasive use of composites. CT staffers went looking for answers to the question I asked in my August editorial: Are we ready? The best answer may be, We know what we need to do to be ready.
Managing editor Mike Musselman says many at ACCE considered that very question. ACCE co-chair Ed Bernardin (Siemens PLM Software) said the auto industry’s characteristic high rate of change is a key hurdle. He and Roger Assaker (e-Xstream engineering) contended that virtual testing of composites is a huge need in the auto world. Such tools are well developed for chopped-fiber compounds, but there is a pressing need for software that can simulate failure of continuous-fiber composites. Reliable tools are emerging and will, says Assaker, take a two-year, multimillion dollar testing program and compress it into a long work day!
High-pressure RTM (HP-RTM), the subject of multiple research reports at last year’s ACCE, is now commercial: Shuler SMG GmbH’s vacuum-assisted HP-RTM system mints the BMW i3 passenger cell and the BMW M3 roof. Quickstep Technologies proposes to do similar duty at low pressures (and with less expensive equipment), with the aid of fluid heating and its new Resin Spray Technology (RST). And Volkswagen AG’s Hendrik Mainka said his work with Oak Ridge National Lab shows that lignin precursor and the process of oxidation and pyrolization that converts it to carbon fiber spells cost savings of 40 percent. Unfortunately, unresolved issues, among them the seasonal variation in lignin (as a plant product), mean commercialization could be a decade away.
CT senior technical editor Sara Black points out that ACCE’s “Aluminum & Composite — Compete or Collaborate?” panelists included aluminum industry representatives. All the panelists agreed that composites can 1) displace steel and aluminum in appropriate applications, and 2) make invaluable contributions to lightweighting. But the discussion revealed that auto OEMs will remain resistant until they hear a valid value proposition. If a composites solution for automotive can make a part lighter, for less money, no problem, say the OEMs. Such solutions, so far, are scarce — a notable exception is the semi-convertible sunroof frame for the Citroen DS3 Cabrio, molded from a modified glass-reinforced styrene maleic anhydride (SMA) resin. The part offers significant material cost savings, part integration (seven parts combined into one) and a 40 percent weight reduction. That aside, Kaiser Aluminum’s Doug Richman made the point that without a solid business case, it’s impossible to make the technology case. Panelist Jai Venkatesan of Dow Chemical Co., pointed out in his keynote address that adoption of composites is a “high-risk, high-reward” and disruptive step, and it’ll take time. Yet, he believes that we can use lessons learned from veterans of aerospace composites and automotive aluminum, apply software tools more widely, and — in collaboration — eventually ensure that composites become an entrenched material choice.