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Sunday, 17 March 2013 22:00

Plastic Potential: Automakers turn to alternative materials to help vehicles shed pounds

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GRAND RAPIDS — The doctor has spoken: Today’s automobiles need to go on a diet.

Over the years, cars gained weight as automakers added new safety equipment and features. To compensate, the car companies had to fit vehicles with larger and more powerful engines so customers didn’t sacrifice performance. At the same time, gas was cheap and fuel efficiency was an afterthought.

But the era of cheap energy is a distant memory. On top of fuel cost pressures, automakers also agreed to the aggressive Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

To achieve those regulatory benchmarks, the car companies know they need to change their thinking.

One major target: weight reduction.

Ford Motor Co., for example, said at the North American International Auto Show that it wanted to remove as much as 700 pounds of weight from its next-generation F-150 pickup truck by using lighter weight materials such as an aluminum body.

Rival General Motors Inc. is also focused on lightweighting after being criticized for years that its vehicles were too heavy. As proof that GM listened: The new Cadillac ATS weighs less than its targeted rival, the BMW 3 Series.

“(W)e will reduce vehicle mass,” said GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson, speaking at the IHS CERAWeek conference, a gathering of energy executives, earlier this month. “A good rule of thumb is that a 10-percent reduction in curb weight will reduce fuel consumption by about 6.5 percent. Our target is to reduce weight by up to 15 percent.”

That’s where companies such as Cascade Engineering Inc. can help.

The $250 million (annual revenues) West Michigan-based Tier I supplier produces a variety of plastic injection molded automotive components, ranging from acoustic products like dash mats and engine covers to powertrain pieces including air cooler tubes for turbo diesels, and trim components for interior and exterior applications.

A company intently focused on triple bottom line sustainability, Cascade operates with a continuous process of evaluating ways to help make vehicles more efficient, most often by reducing mass, said Bob Rosenbach, senior vice president of the Cascade Automotive Americas division.

One recent example is the Ford Escape’s one-piece dash mat or silencer that goes between the firewall and interior, from which Cascade was able to trim three pounds. The company achieved that weight reduction by changing its process and the thicknesses of the plastic without sacrificing acoustical properties or safety, Rosenbach said.  

Years ago, a similar part would have had uniform thickness, but thanks to variable mass capabilities, Cascade can now just “put mass on the part where it needs it.”

Even small weight savings can add up for a vehicle that weighs more than 3,200 pounds, in the case of the Escape.

“A pound here, a pound there or three pounds here and three pounds there, that’s a big deal,” Rosenbach said.

While much of the press around lightweighting vehicles has been focused on substituting aluminum and magnesium or exotic materials such as carbon fiber in the place of steel, the industry is also looking at the role of plastics.

According to a 2012 report from the American Chemistry Council, today’s cars are 10 percent plastic by weight, but plastics make up about half of a typical car’s volume. Moreover, automakers’ use of plastics in cars is on the rise, growing 15 percent from 2010 to 2011 and 119 percent since 2001, the report stated.

Another study by the American Chemistry Council and PE International Inc. found that the energy it takes to produce plastic components is offset by the life cycle savings for plastics when compared to steel components. The reason: The lighter plastics required less energy to move, and that’s a savings realized over the vehicle’s life span every time it goes to fill up.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) also weighed in last December with a material substitution case study involving a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Where possible, the authors replaced steel components in the body and frame with plastics or a combination of aluminum and magnesium. The results showed a potential vehicle weight reduction of 19 percent or 952 pounds with no effect on front crash test safety.

“Vehicle weight reduction in one area will have a cascading effect,” the report stated.

Weight reduction aside, Cascade’s Rosenbach said his company’s molding capabilities can also help cut costs. Using the dash mat as an example, Cascade’s advanced molding technology allows it to mold in components such as a wire harness bracket for HVAC controls, rather than the OEM having a separate part number for the part. Reducing part numbers can add up: The administrative cost of purchasing and tracking each new part number can surpass $100,000 per year for the OEM, he said.

“What we’re always trying to do is look at what’s the next thing we can bring to the table, whether it’s different materials or different processes,” Rosenbach said. “That’s a continuous thing.

“Our niches revolve around solving problems and providing solutions. We’re not a ‘Me, too!’ organization.”

Read 7189 times Last modified on Monday, 18 March 2013 08:17

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