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How The Automotive Industry Is Overcoming Challenges with Composites

    September 21, 2015

With 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards getting closer every day, automakers are getting innovative with the materials used in today’s cars to achieve lightweighting. Steady technological advances are allowing non-traditional materials to be used in more significant parts of vehicles than ever before. 

Composites are one of the non-traditional materials that are a popular choice for today’s OEMs. They offer a great stiffness-to-weight ratio and, when used in place of metals, can shave weight by 20 to 75 percent, without sacrificing strength. Automakers have known this for years, but have been reluctant to introduce them into major car components because of high cost, long production times and the need to overhaul current systems. But, according to IHS Chemical, the average car in 2020 will have nearly 350 kg of composites, roughly a 75 percent increase over today’s levels. For that to happen, OEMs will have to overcome these composites challenges. And, if these examples are any indication, they already are. 

Solutions to Composites Problems

Problem: Cost

Speeding Up Carbon Fiber Adoption

Cost is a barrier to composites adoption in the automotive industry. It’s not feasible for OEMs to mass-produce cars with a significant amount of composites at current costs. 

But that may be changing thanks to an increased focus on research capabilities. Carbon Nexus, part of the Australian Future Fibres Research and Innovation Centre at Deakin University, is open for business as the world’s only open access carbon fiber manufacturing and research facility. It serves as a place where OEMs can experiment, learn and improve processes. One OEM working at the center is exclusively focused on lowering costs. The center has 11 industry partners in total from nine countries.

In the United States, the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is spearheading the composites movement. The group includes 123 manufacturers, suppliers, government and academia focused on advancing composites adoption. 

Problem: Production Speed

Toyota’s Fuel Cell Car Employs Carbon Fiber Extensively 

Perhaps the greatest challenge with using composites is their long production time. But, as the article from “Plastics Today” points out, Toyota has made progress in this area. The company’s “Mirai” is the first mass-produced vehicle with a composite structural component. It partnered with a carbon fiber manufacturer to develop a faster process for molding a carbon-fiber reinforced fuel cell stack frame (the vehicle’s floor). Toyota is keeping quiet about how they did it, but did give a look at how the fuel cell stack was installed onto the composite stack frame.  

Problem: Process Change 

BMW Leipzig: The Epicenter of i3 Production

Vehicles built with a significant amount of composites have traditionally been short-run, high-end cars not suitable for the mass market. BMW was the first automaker to change that with its “i Series” of vehicles. The vehicles have an all-carbon passenger cell and roof, and a thermoplastic exterior body, hood and fenders. To accomplish this, BMW reimagined its entire production process. It integrated an impressive, albeit complex, system that starts with manufacturing the carbon fiber material in Japan, making stops at several different factories, and ending with assembly in BMW’s Leipzig factory in Germany. The effort put the company at the head of the composites movement in the automotive industry. 

Henkel’s Role

At Henkel, we’re tackling these problems head on too. We developed LOCTITE Max 2 and Max 3 polyurethane resins to improve production time. The low viscosity resins penetrate and impregnate fiber material easily, which makes for a shorter injection time. The result? The ability to produce composite parts at 200,000 – 300,000 per year.

Learn more about our automotive capabilities here

About the Author, Henkel Automotive

As the market leader in adhesives, sealants and functional coatings to the transportation industry, Henkel drives automotive designs forward by increasing performance, reducing weight and enabling sustainability. Backed by extensive design capabilities, a broad product range and technical expertise, the company delivers solutions to all segments of the vehicle.

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