Lightweighting the cars of tomorrow


“Welcome to the 13th Annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exposition”. With that statement, Creig Bowland opened the SPE ACCE for his third and last year as Chairman. It was by far the largest and most interactive yet, the numbers being almost 900 registered participants (897) and 90 peer reviewed papers. There were also many future plastics engineers present as evidenced by the 32 students entered in the research poster competition. All of these numbers were 30 to 40% higher than previous years. The vendor and sponsor booths (also present in record numbers) were always full even when the lights were turned down for the keynote speakers. The attendees continued to ask the vendors the question: how can your product help make the vehicle meet the ever-tighter fuel economy standards? The official theme of the conference was: Composites: Lightweighting the Cars of Tomorrow. However, the feeling (unofficial theme) was: Now That We Have Everyone’s Attention – Let’s Get This Done! 

BU4: Chairman Creig Bowland at the 13th Annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exposition (photo: SPE)

No longer were people saying cost was all that mattered. No longer were complaints about the lack of modelling brought up in every panel discussion. The engineers were moving on to the next stage. The SPE organisers even invited representatives from the aluminium industry (arch rivals) to speak. Why? So everyone could sit down together and find the best material for each application to make the vehicles lighter, stronger and, most importantly, more fuel efficient. The papers covered a wide array of subjects for all levels of participant knowledge and need. For the beginners there was a series of tutorials (a concept that started last year) covering plastics 101, processing technologies, fibreglass 101, history of composites, preforms, repairs and modelling. For the veterans there were examples of new processes and products and examples of existing processes and products that were improved. In fact, organisers had to make an additional concurrent session, giving the attendees four choices for each time slot for half the conference. Those sessions included opportunities and challenges with carbon composites, virtual prototyping and testing of composites, nanocomposites, enabling technologies, advances in thermoplastic composites, advances in thermoset composites, advances in preforming and reinforcement technologies, bio and natural fibre composites and two plant tours. Fortunately, most of the presentations are on the SPE Automotive website.

Attendees looking at the parts for the composite competition (photo: Mike and Pam Brady)

Working together in a pre-competitive collaboration was another strong theme. Presenters explained about the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). CAR is jointly run by representatives of the aluminium industry and the plastics industry, with research work done by the United States National Labs. A second presentation was made to the attendees on the National Advanced Composites Manufacturing Institute which was built for industry, staffed and managed by Oakridge National Lab. The panel discussion with representatives of the aluminium and composites industries was another example of working together.

Panellist Jan-Anders Manson (photo: Mike and Pam Brady)

However, it was also clear that there is still a lot of work to be done. During the panel discussion Jan-Anders Manson of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, expressed his opinion that today’s students and many engineers are too specialised and this results in seeing only one solution to a problem. A composites engineer thinks composites, and a mechanical engineer thinks metal, while the best answer may be to use both in the proper application. One of the students at the poster judging seemed to reinforce this statement; his degree was to be in nanotechnology, seemingly a pretty narrow speciality. One Michigan university must have agreed with Manson because it held a 2h seminar on what it offered in its curriculum in the way of plastic specialities and then held another session to give the participants the opportunity to tell them what was missing or might be strengthened in their curricula. It must be said all of the student project posters were very good, making judging very difficult and requiring a tie-break to determine the winners. And the students themselves were poised and knowledgeable and were often seen talking with vendors and attending presentations. It appears that the future of the industry will be in good hands.

Judging student projects (photo: Mike and Pam Brady)

Many papers included information indicating that modelling has come a long way and can give very detailed and accurate results; but all of these papers made clear that modelling of composites will always take longer and be more complex than modelling of metals. One even pointed out that this was not a problem particular to plastics. Many small town mechanics don’t know how to handle aluminium auto parts and so they damage the parts by treating them just as they would steel.

To wrap everything up Friday afternoon the last speaker, Howard Coopmans, Senior Manager SRT Viper, reminded the audience why they were working in this industry. A short film advertisement for Viper (and really a call to all car lovers) reminded everyone that a body (in this case a car body) is just a dead lifeless thing until the designer breathes life into it and gives it a soul. He pointed out the 2013 Viper uses carbon fibre, aluminium, RRIM and thermosets all working together to breathe soul into this vehicle. It appears clear that the answer lies in a variety of materials, all of which are designed to be at their best.

A summary for Plastics by Mike and Pam Brady

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