InterviewAuto plastics up despite steel culture

03 July 2008 22:07  [Source: ICIS news]

Plastics make a dent in auto marketsBy Brian Ford

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--Lightweight plastics continue to make inroads in US automobiles as gasoline costs soar, but Detroit’s steel-centred culture poses challenges, an American Chemistry Council (ACC) official said on Thursday.

Auto producers are looking at ways to put their vehicles on weight-loss plans that make them more fuel efficient. A pound of plastics can displace 2-3 lb (0.9-1.4 kg) of heavier materials in vehicles, according to the ACC.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires  that auto engines achieve an average fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) (15 kg/litre) by 2020, an increase of 10 mpg over the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard of 27.5 mpg average for cars and 20.7 mpg average for light trucks.

The average for cars must exceed 27.5 mpg, and the light-truck average must exceed 20.7 mpg

However, automakers have heavy investments in a steel-based infrastructure and “are reluctant not to use that capital,” said James Kolb, senior director - automotive, for the ACC.

“If you are a steel guy you will opt for steel,” he added.

“Don’t get me wrong - plastics are making inroads,” Kolb said, adding that it was not unrealistic to expect 20% of the weight of an average vehicle will be plastic by the year 2020, more than double the amount today.

Each US-manufactured light vehicle on average contains 338 lb of plastics and composites, accounting for 8.4% of the vehicle’s weight, according to the ACC.  That represents an 18% gain on the average of 286 lb of plastics used in vehicles in 2000 and a nearly 75% jump from the 1990 average of 194 lb.

Automobiles are an important chemical end market, in that each has an average of $2,400 (€1,512) worth of chemistry, according to the ACC. Automobile parts include rubber hoses, plastic dashboards, catalysts, fibres, adhesives and coatings.

Smaller production runs for auto models could help make plastics a more attractive alternative to steel, Kolb said.

Whereas a plant would make 240,000 or more of a particular model in past years, many models are now made in the 70,000-100,000 range, Kolb said.

Steel-stamping dies are expensive and are more cost-effective at higher production numbers, he said. An auto maker must invest in new steel stamping dies when it changes a model.

Smaller production numbers could make plastic alternatives more attractive, he said.

Also, those companies that supply components directly to the auto manufacturers are using more plastics, he said.

Although US sales of less-fuel efficient sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickups have plummeted as the cost of gasoline has soared, plastics could make them lighter and more fuel efficient.

“I think you will always have a market for pickups … people that want SUVs and vans,” Kolb said. “Let’s do something that doesn’t force every into the small car arena.”

Plastics are making inroads in front-end components, load floors and even auto power trains, Kolb said.

Most people do not realise the amount of plastic that already goes into vehicles, ranging from gasoline tanks to the layer of polyvinyl butryal (PVB) that is lies between two sheets of glass in auto windshields.

($1 = €0.63)

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By: Brian Ford
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