In India, automakers are asking their component suppliers to think plastic mainly to reduce weight, which in turn contributes to improved fuel efficiency. They are also banking on plastics to give a trendy look to their cars.
When Tata Motors was developing its ultra-low cost small car Nano, it turned to plastics to bring down costs and weight of the car. The company worked extensively with one of the leading global polymer manufacturer to develop the right solutions for its car. Before Nano, Reva, the first electric car developed and launched in India, also used plastic to meet its design and cost requirements. Today, even luxury carmakers are taking the plastic route.
The automotive manufacturers, looking to minimise manufacturing cost, are opting for plastics over steel due to its cost-effectiveness. Moreover, India is one of the major producers of automotive plastics, hence during last half a decade, demand for automotive plastics have reported an exponential growth. The properties of plastics such as easy mouldability, recyclability, scratch resistance, high volume-to-weight resistance, thermal stability, impact strength, and resistance to abrasion makes them suitable for use in automobiles.
Increased use of plastic components can reduce the overall weight of a car by as much as 40 per cent, which can go a long way in improving fuel efficiency. In addition, the cost of tooling plastic is half that of a conventional metal-based tooling system.
The past few years have seen several advances in plastics technology and a number of conventional metal parts like fuel tanks have been replicated in plastic.
Plastics used for electrical parts, exterior, and interior applications accounted for 70 per cent in the total automotive plastic consumption in 2014, when the global automotive plastic market stood at 8.69 million tons.
Reducing the weight of the vehicle to achieve better fuel efficiency and cut down emission level has driven many OEMs to replace metal and alloy components with plastic auto parts in recent years. “High performance plastics and composites are helping vehicle manufacturers meet the competing demands of consumers and regulation by helping increase fuel efficiency, while improving performance and comfort, and allowing more technology to make its way into vehicles,” says Philip Jeszke, Global Segment Leader for automotive industry, Ascend Performance Materials.
The biggest challenge in front of automotive manufacturers today is to reduce carbon footprint while improving aesthetics and performance of the vehicles. Globally, road traffic generates one-fifth of global CO22 emissions, and this figure is on the rise. A car that is just 10 per cent lighter consumes about five per cent less fuel. “Thus, lightweighting is one of the key objectives of all major commercial vehicle manufacturers. At the same time, there is incessant clamour to improve the sturdiness of the vehicles. In both these matters, polymers have proved that they can contribute immensely. Polymers today are lightweight and equally, if not more, strong than metal,” opines Ajay Durrani, Managing Director, Covestro India, a part of Germany-based Covestro (formerly Bayer MaterialScience).
Materials in use
Polypropylene, PVC, polyurethane, polyethylene, polycarbonate and polyamide (nylon) are some of the commonly used plastic materials in the auto industry. Plastic is primarily used in the compartments like body panels, bumpers and fascia systems, steering wheels and light panels among other sections in the vehicle.
According to Techsci Research report, the Indian automotive plastics market revenues have grown at the CAGR of around 25 per cent during 2009-12, which is higher when compared with global growth rate. The consumption of polypropylene (PP) and polyurethane (PUR) are forecasted to get doubled in terms of revenues in automotive plastics sector in India during the next five years. As a result, polymer suppliers are gearing up to meet this requirement.
“In India, CO2 emission regulations are becoming stricter and there is a growing trend in the automobile industry to make vehicles lighter. To meet these needs of automobile manufacturers, Covestro has developed a carbon fiber composites in both polyurethane and polycarbonate chemistry for structural components in cars there by offering huge potential for reducing vehicle weight and, thus, CO2 emissions,” says Durrani.
Nylon is helping solve some of the auto industry’s biggest challenges. The advantage of nylon 6,6 is that it allows reduction of the overall weight of the vehicle; meaning engines can become smaller without sacrificing performance. Furthermore, as engines become smaller, manufacturers are turning to turbo-chargers to boost performance and meet customer demands, thereby increasing the temperatures under the hood. Nylon 6,6 makes light-weighting possible in the harsh environment found under the hood.
Jeszke explains, “Our nylon 6,6 is used in a variety of automotive applications, from fasteners and electrical connectors to external and under-the-hood components. The high-performing H, HT and HR series of our Vydyne PA66 compounds are prized for their ability to perform in harsh environments; withstanding prolonged exposure to high temperatures and chemicals.”
EV calling for plastics use
The Reva, India’s first electric vehicle designed for low speed, congested, and urban conditions, recognised the benefits of using plastic. Its body was made of hard ABS crylonitrilebutadiene-styrene) plastic and a tubular spaceframe that holds things together. In fact the ABS is practical for biffs and bang which means that if you hammer the body with a mallet, it will bounce back in shape. ABS plastic body panels also mean a rust-free car and easy, cheap accident repair or panel replacement too.
In order to reduce the carbon footprint, car manufacturers are looking at infusing investments in hybrid and electric cars. In India, mere adoption of EV and shared vehicles could save about $60 billion in fuel cost, over which the country has been spending a considerable chunk of its foreign exchange.
“But, even with the right infrastructure, India’s EV dream needs to shed some weight. The performance of an electric vehicle requires a fascinating amalgamation of aerodynamics and acoustics. It’s not just necessary to make it look attractive; you need to have the right materials to make it lightweight to be more efficient in terms of the performance (mileage/distance per charge) of the vehicle, insulation, battery thermal management, flammability performance etc,” says Durrani.
Anand Swaroop, CEO, Goldstone Infratech Ltd, which makes electric buses in India, adds, “Ultimately carbon (plastics) will replace metals. Most of the materials that go into the interiors of the vehicles are made of plastic. Apart from the outer body (which is made of metals), every other part used in the automotive industry can be potentially replaced by plastics.”
With innovation and technology, there is an enormous range of polymer compounds which can accentuate the appearance, rigidity, resistance, and also reduce the weight and cost of the vehicle.
“Car manufacturers are making the shift toward hybrid and electric vehicles. Here, too, nylon 6,6 plays an important role,” adds Jeszke.
In the long term, Jeszke sees the electrical demands placed on vehicles increasing beyond the powertrain. To meet these demands, manufacturers are beginning to adopt 48-volt power systems instead of, or in conjunction with, the current 12-volt power system. Nylon 6,6 is playing an important role in this shift.
“Connecting all the wires transmitting electricity and data are nylon 6,6 connectors; chosen for their resilience to impact, high temperatures and chemicals, as well as their electrical neutrality. But we also help create vital safety components, like battery enclosures and pyrotechnic disconnects, which break the electrical connection in the event of a collision, effectively isolating the battery and preventing hazardous electrical surges,” says Jeszke.
Similarly, a stringent requirement of emission is forcing carmakers to look at viable solution. Jeszke explains, “In the immediate future, we see nylon 6,6 continuing to play a role in helping meet stricter safety, health and environmental regulations. India’s airbag and emissions requirements are perfect examples. Nylon 6,6 fiber is used in airbags and nylon 6,6 resin is used in emission-reducing parts, like carbon canisters.”
Durrani adds, “India is a highly promising market for Covestro in the APAC region and contributes up to 40 per cent of the business. Automobile alone contributes up to 25 per cent of the revenue share for Covestro India. In India, we are working in close collaboration with a lot of big OEMs. Covestro is focused on producing talented materials and coatings which will contribute towards the lightweighting objectives of the manufactures while improving the overall look and performance of the vehicle.”
For a trendy look
Plastics are revolutionising interior and exterior auto design and are increasingly making their presence felt in vehicle design and engineering. For example, Covestro offers intelligent alternatives to conventional materials. Combining polyurethane with carbon fibers turns it into a strong composite material, which is ideal for fabricating complete structural components. Similarly, in vehicle-lighting polycarbonate offers a number of advantages over glass for this application: it supports a high degree of design freedom and is simpler and more cost-efficient to process. The material also promotes the trend toward LEDs, because lenses made of polycarbonate focus and guide light from the diodes to create an optimal field of view.
Plastics allow engineers greater flexibility in styling, building, and assembling components as well as to combine several complex parts into a single integrated component, while lowering manufacturing costs. For instance, instead of the usual structure of windows, pillars, and roof, the entire roof module can now be a monolithic, transparent dome, thanks to polycarbonate. The result: a 360-degree panorama view without any blind spots, greater safety for other traffic participants and an entirely new design experience.
New technology and processes enable use of recycled materials, making it highly cost effective. There will be significant growth in plastic usage by the Indian automotive industry. Indian cars, regardless of the segment, are increasingly seeing new levels of luxury inside the cabin that are often a result of using plastic in different forms.
Take the example of automotive lighting, which is entering a totally new dimension with integrated headlamps and rear lights. Light and the lighting effect itself is now the styling element. “Automotive designers today have access to remarkable possibilities for styling the front and rear ends. While the sensors, antennas, light and signal elements are integrated in the system, these are not visible from outside and at the same time the functionalities remain unaffected. While consumers want a sophisticated and trendy look, car makers want unique features and an unmistakable brand design,” points out Durrani.
In this concern, holography will likely prove to be a top technology in future automotive lighting. “Together with automotive supplier Hella, Covestro AG has developed an innovative solution based on holographic films, with which various light functions can be integrated into the body parts. The solution requires very little space and opens up entirely new possibilities for using light as a design element. India has been rapidly adopting global trends and we are confident that this trend - and many others - will soon make their way to India,” comments Durrani.
Collaborate to innovate
An improved cooperation between plastics producers, tier-1 and OEMs are resulting in an ability to evaluate and resolve material-related issues in a very early design phase of an application. For example, Ineos Styrolution, the global leader in styrenics, was recently selected by the Coimbatore-based Goldsun Auto Pvt Ltd as a thermoplastics supplier for its range of automotive components such as spoilers, luggage carriers and footsteps for four-wheelers in India. Goldsun will use Ineos Styrolution’s Absolac ABS to create high impact bumper guards for SUVs like Tata Hexa and parcel trays for Datsun redi-GO.
Goldsun employs innovative methods such as special blow molding, plasma cutting (cutting electrically conductive materials by means of an accelerated jet of hot plasma), cold anodising (electrolytic passivation process increasing the thickness of the natural oxide layer on the surface of metal parts) and powder coating to create high quality and visually appealing components. They are one of the first companies to start a dedicated ABS bumper guard production unit in India. The blowmoulding technology ensures dimensional accuracy, high volume production, high surface finish and repeatability factors.
Top global carmakers like Volkswagen and Ford establishing their manufacturing facilities in India has resulted in technology transfer to the region and has helped the development of automotive component manufacturing process.
India is one of the fastest growing passenger vehicle markets. With the rise of vehicles, emerging technologies, tougher fuel standards, the automotive industry is booming these days, and so is the polymers industry.
“Rapid globalisation is opening up fresh avenues for the automobile industry especially when it makes a shift towards electric, electronic and hybrid cars which are considered to be more efficient, safe and more reliable modes of transportation. We strongly believe that this will lead to new opportunities for automobile and auto-component manufacturers, and there is a growing need for them to adapt to change via systematic research and development,” says Durrani.
Vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers are constantly looking at newer ways of using polymer-based metal substitutes. The use of plastics in automobiles in India is still much less compared to global market. Clearly, there is a lot of scope for development in this space in India.
Lightweighting is one of the key objectives of all major commercial vehicle manufacturers. Polymers have proved that they can contribute immensely. Polymers today are lightweight and equally - if not more - strong than metal
- Ajay Durrani,
Ultimately carbon (plastics) will replace metals. Most of the materials that go into the interiors of the vehicles are made of plastics. Apart from outer body (which is made of metals), every other parts used in the automotive industry can be potentially replaced by plastics.
- Anand Swaroop,
CEO, Goldstone Infratech Ltd
High performance plastics and composites are helping vehicle manufacturers meet the competing demands of consumers and regulation by helping increase fuel efficiency, while improving performance and comfort.
- Philip Jeszke,
Global Segment Leader for Automotive industry, Ascend Performance Materials