How Automobile Lightweighting Is Done: The Coming Revolution

How do you lightweight the automotive industry for fuel efficiency and safety – so fast?

Tomorrow’s cars need to be safe and fuel efficient, so automakers must pursue materials that are incredibly strong, but weigh less. There are currently a variety of materials used in automotive parts for these purposes, so we predict the future of mass automobile lightweighting lies in plastics and polymer composites. This is how it can be done.

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A polymer composite uses plastics as a the background material that is then “filled” with various fibers for added strength, flex, rigidity, fatigue resistance, shear strength and heat resistance. In the automobile industry, plastic car parts have achieved this added strength with short glass fibers mixed with molten plastics and injected-molded for several decades. Recently, U.S. National Lab research with new polymer composites using longer (therefore stronger) glass fibers and Moldflow® CAD software have allowed material decision makers to reliably predict part performance when these longer fiber composites are injection-molded (a fast process, similar to making milk jugs). Injection molding can makes auto part production cycle-times very fast.

Bingo: strong lightweight parts that meet auto performance testing standards (Bing!); created in a production cycle time fast enough to meet high automotive model year volumes (Bing!).

The next bell will ring very soon. Other materials can be used in addition to or in lieu of glass fibers. They must be strong and lightweight, but work with the high-speed injection-molding plastics process.

That composite fiber, probably carbon, will revolutionize the auto industry, and these cars of tomorrow are right around the corner. Plastics Technology, Design News, and even the DOE are talking about injection-molded carbon fiber filled automotive parts, and the National Labs are investigating various carbon composites to reliably predict those new parts’ performance in the high speed injection-molded process.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more research on this revolution, as part of our “What Is a Composite, Anyway?” series. Stay tuned!

» Plastics and Polymer Composites in Light Vehicles Report (July 2016)

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