Automotive Composites Outlook for 2019

Jan 18,2019

The global automotive composites market reached approximately US$ 7.2 Billion in 3Q18, as projected in a recent market research report by Future Market Insights, demand further increasing at a steady CAGR of roughly 5.4 percent, between 2018 and 2028—majorly driven by the diffident global automotive production.

The following article gives a holistic outlook on the automotive industry and the role composites will play in such a competitive industry vertical. 

The Current Favorite: Fuel Efficiency with Lightweighting Strategies

Composites, in general, have continued to show healthy growth across automotive aerospace, wind energy sector, and lately the marine end market. In addition, the regulatory mandates for low carbon emission and fuel-efficient vehicles are pushing major automakers to adopt lightweighting strategies. While engineers are exploring cost-effective alternatives and developing new assembly processes, they are also struggling to keep up with the stringent safety and performance standard. A survey by DuPont Automotive confirmed that lightweighting remains the most critical issue in the automotive industry, translating into focused efforts towards using lightweight structural materials.

In key economies such as United States and Europe, in addition to fast moving economies like India, automakers are racing towards developing more fuel efficient vehicles as allowable standards of carbon dioxide emissions continue to drop. Accompanied by puissant performance improvements, vehicle mass reduction continues to remain an unparalleled strategy among the OEMs to achieve fuel economy. Composites will play a key role here. However, the further significance will only depend upon the value they deliver along with their competence to fit into the automotive infrastructure.

Ford, for instance, recently developed a composite rear suspension knuckle for a C-segment vehicle using a combination of a carbon fiber and a custom-made manufacturing process resulting in a 50% reduction in weight versus the existing fabricated steel component.

OEMs Face Constraints with Weight-Reducing Composites

With composites offering favorable strength-to-weight ratios, automakers have to deal with the high cost of some automotive composites, specifically carbon fiber where repairing and recycling remains an unaddressed issue. This is also an issue preventing its permeation into the high-volume and low-pricing segment cars that are more cost-sensitive. Additionally, the present scenario of low-volume production and lack of general engineering expertise boils down to higher manufacturing cycles and lower investments by the OEMs.

The unrivaled position of steel companies in the global automotive landscape as the key suppliers of vehicle body and components, in conjunction with sizeable investments from automakers into metal production lines, further preventing easy barter of metal with composites.

Composites Battling Adhesion, Painting Processes

While the automotive engineers have definitely responded to the shift in consumer demand for more energy efficient vehicles by manufacturing very thing structures, lightweight structural materials such as Carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) and glass fiber reinforced plastics (GFRP) present OEMs with joining challenges such as welding, screwing and riveting than the high-strength sheet metals, given the former’s bonded matrix. Apart from damaging the laminar structure of composites when punched with screws and rivets, CFRP also turn vulnerable to excessive corrosion when joined to metals.

Although, ultrasonic welding has been an acceptable consideration in the automotive industry—this joining technology also comes with a host of challenges including high power consumption and limited applicability to thermoplastic matrix materials only.

Bonding, a non-destructive and component-saving joining technology, will remain a critical technology in joining composites to other components, while offsetting the use of screws and rivets. OEMs are increasingly using threaded bolts that are bonded to the composites, further enabling high automation speed and effective energy balance.

Adhesives Offer a Strong Case, But…

Industry experts see tremendous scope in composite adhesive bonding for sealing joints and separating dissimilar substrates, while also maintaining clean and seamless bonds from an aesthetics standpoint. Taking a cue from the aerospace and oil and gas industries where every pound added to the weight impacts the flying or oil pumping capabilities, the automotive industry too has made considerable use of composite adhesive bonding.

While adhesive bonding works in structural bonding of thermoset composites, for thermoplastics OEMs often rely on processes such as vibrational welding. Despite automotive industry offering a level playing ground to adhesives when it comes to bonding composites, a host of challenges remain lined up if a shift from thermoset to thermoplastic composites were to take place, resulting in a substantial risk of losing market share to other joining technologies.

Additive Manufacturing: F1 Cars, Other Automakers Go Big on 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing is one such revolutionary technology that has created up to 75% of the whole car with plans to go full throttle, in the coming years and move beyond just creating components prototypes.

Apart from custom parts and component remanufacturing in the automotive industry, Formula 1 teams are also inching closer to creating vehicles using additive manufacturing, considering these cars are a true feat of automotive engineering—constantly pushing the boundaries of science and design. F1 car makers are increasingly using AM to manufacturers all key components of the final car including upright covers, exhaust components, garage equipment, and the Scalmalloy (aluminum-magnesium-scandium alloy) roll hoop, among several customized sets of radiator and intercooler inlets and outlets.

Experts believe that roll hoop, a critical component protecting the racer in case of a car rollover, is one of the most interesting 3D-manufactured car component as manufacturers keep the weight of this high-up component specifically low, in order to align the center of gravity with the lowest point in the car.

Racing ahead in the AM landscape, McLaren Racing signed a four-year partnership with Stratasys, a global leader in professional 3D printers to supply one of the world’s most iconic F1 teams with a suite of AM and 3D printing solutions. Similarly, German automaker Audi adopted Stratasys’ 3D printing methods to produce full-color physical models of automotive components, reduce prototyping lead time, and fast-track the design verification process. 

Future Outlook

Despite the fact that composites remain a niche material in the automotive industry and its healthy growth is warranted considering technological and regulatory drivers, industry experts believe that market optimism towards automotive composites could be thawed, further creating a challenging supply chain dynamics over the next few years. While application potentiality of automotive composites is projected to remain strong, its adoption will only surge when found superior in terms of overall cost, weight, and performance, compared to the other material types such as steel, posing further challenges.

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