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Push for electric vehicles means plastics may take charge



Detroit -- It should not be a shock to automotive suppliers that the plastics industry has an electric future.

By 2025, electric and hybrid electric vehicles could account for 33 percent of total vehicle production worldwide, according to data from IHS Markit Ltd., and suppliers are being tapped by OEMs to put different composites and materials into real-world vehicle applications.

Auto supplier executives like Eric Haiss of Continental Structural Plastics view the data as a sign that gears are shifting and the market is changing.

"If you're not paying attention to EVs ... you should start doing so now," Haiss, CSP's executive vice president, said Jan. 16 at the Plastics in Automotive conference-sponsored by Plastics News.

Geographically, future electric vehicle production estimations also capture the change. In North America, Haiss said, IHS Markit estimates nearly 20 percent of vehicles will be electric or hybrid electric by 2025. In Europe, estimates are at 11 percent.

Estimates for China represent the biggest growth curve due to the Chinese government's aggressive electric vehicle rules, he said.

"When you look at 2017, you're dealing with about 500,000 EV or HEV vehicles that were produced in China," Haiss said. "What's really interesting is that by 2020, that number will be 2 million vehicles. That is the Chinese government's goal."

By 2025, IHS Markit projects there will be more than 4.5 million electric and hybrid electric vehicles in China.

"Everyone here recognizes battery boxes are very important," Haiss said of composites used in electric vehicle applications.

In 2014, CSP formed a joint venture with Qingdao Victall Railway Co. Ltd. to manufacture composite components for automotive, heavy truck and bus, and construction and agriculture markets in China. The 50-50 partnership has also given the supplier a boost in the electric vehicle market.

"I think close to 80 percent of our opportunities in China are tied to electric vehicle battery boxes at the moment," Haiss said. "It's a really growing market for us."

Using composites for the battery boxes -- Haiss said CSP uses vinyl ester, a thermoset plastic -- offers several advantages over metal, such as lower tooling costs and overall program investment as well as design flexibility, and lightweighting and safety improvements.

"Many people are starting to estimate that with electric vehicles -- and eventually autonomous electric vehicles -- the projected lifecycle of a vehicle could be as high as 500,000 miles. ... Corrosion [resistance] is going to be a real big advantage for us with composites," he said.

Interior opportunities

For interior elements of an electric vehicle, whether for function or design, plastics will have a greater role as OEMs pursue mixed materials to decrease vehicle weight and increase capabilities.

"The interior of the vehicle, I don't think people know exactly what it's going to look like, but we know what it needs to do from a perspective of incorporating electronics, making it seamlessly integrated," said Rose Ryntz, vice president of advanced development and materials engineering at International Automotive Components Group.

Ryntz was one of three panelists onstage during a Jan. 16 discussion on vehicle interiors at the Plastics in Automotive conference.

"All the things that we're experimenting with now, with ... lightweight, low cost, safety ... I think all of those things are still going to be required," she added. "It's just, which ones are mandated by government regulations and which ones do the consumers prefer? I think it's still up in the air."

From a materials perspective, Jeffrey Helms, global automotive OEM corporate accounts director for engineered materials at Celanese Corp., said he sees "a lot of opportunity" in terms of being able to reconfigure interiors in electric or autonomous electric ride-sharing vehicles.

"Comfort, convenience, safety [and] cost will always be there," Helms said.

Robert Kinney, vice president of engineering at Faurecia North America, commented on the life cycle of the electric vehicle as newer technology emerges.

"We need to be able to retrofit within the life of the vehicle and perhaps be able to update it both technically as well as aesthetically," he said. "[This] is going to be a new challenge that we haven't really had to address directly from a materials [supplier] or an OEM perspective."

For electric vehicles, specifically, driving out mass and reducing weight mean lower costs and extended range, Helms said. More recently, he has seen a more aggressive focus on reducing the weight of seats as well as the elimination of the cross car beam as cockpits for electric and autonomous electric vehicles are reimagined and reconfigured.

Ryntz added that she expects to see a dramatic change in the "manufacturability of the materials as we know them today."

"I think they have to be very interchangeable, the components in a vehicle," she said. "I think we're going to see a lot more compression and injection combining forces to get materials that are lighter weight with different types of attachment schemes."

Kinney said one of the biggest challenges facing automakers and suppliers today is figuring out how to align capital investments with the needs and demands of the future as technology rapidly evolves.

"We have to find a way to build a bridge between where we are today and where we're heading," he said.

"[The technology] is not so much in the future," Kinney added. "It's coming at us, and [it will] change faster than we expected and will change more than expected."


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