Top takeaways from the 2017 Plastics in Automotive Conference in Detroit
How do you begin your typical workday? Coffee, catching up on the news, and reading emails?
Now imagine accomplishing those tasks while en route to work, traveling 75 mph along Interstate 85, or while navigating the stop-and-go of city driving. All within a safely controlled vehicle — and without the expense of a chauffeur.
While the visual may seem like something from a Jetsons-era fantasy, it’s closer on the horizon than you’d think, and it’s one of the ideas explored in depth earlier this month at the Plastics in Automotive Conference in Detroit.
The event was a precursor to the North American International Auto Show, with a focus on plastics materials in automotive production. Industry leaders (including representatives from businesses with Upstate operations) shared their take on shifts in the automotive industry. The gist: Buckle up; it’s bound to be a (pleasantly) disruptive ride.
Autonomy, smart mobility, and ridesharing
Our scenario above is inspired by a presentation from Renae Pippel, director of strategic research for Yanfeng Automotive Interiors. Yanfeng, a leading supplier of interior features, components, and systems, is headquartered in Shanghai and last summer acquired a Faurecia manufacturing plant in Fountain Inn, announcing $71 million in capital investment.
In her presentation, Pippel presented autonomy, smart mobility, and ridesharing as consumer-led changes that open the door for interiors to be overhauled completely. Picture this: the comforts of home that enable napping or watching videos, or bringing in filing cabinets and tables into the vehicle to provide a mobile office.
It’s worth noting that while autonomous vehicles (capable of guiding themselves without human conduction) are further on the horizon, self-driving technology is increasingly available on car lots today.
“We’re already smart, but we’re shifting to smarter,” Pippel said. Features currently on the road are an indicator, automatic lights and windshield wipers, proximity keys that detect driver-seat position preferences, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, parking assistance technology, and collision-avoiding safety brakes.
That sentiment was echoed by Ian Simmons, vice president of business development and R&D with Magna International Inc. Magna International broke ground in December 2016 on a $29 million manufacturing plant in Spartanburg County, with 480 new jobs projected over five years.
“Fifty-four million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2035,” Simmons told the crowd.
In addition to shifting to smarter technologies, there’s also a movement toward greater utilization of ride sharing in lieu of vehicle ownership. Currently, ride sharing is 4 percent of the market (expressed in total miles driven globally), and it’s projected to grow to 26 percent by 2035.
With the idea of using a shared vehicle comes the need to ensure the vehicle’s interior is durable, easy to clean, and does not feel “used.”
That means advances such as antimicrobial surfaces and interior cloths are being investigated, adding to the boundless potential for R&D.
Light-weighting: here to stay, thanks to plastics
Another key takeaway from the conference: Regardless of federal policies on fuel economy standards, many industry leaders will continue seeking lightweight materials. And that’s where plastics come in.
Plastics make up 50 percent of a vehicle’s volume, but only 10 percent of the weight, according to Autodesk Inc. presenter Jeff Higgins. Fenders, windows, trunk lids, hoods, fascias and bumpers, interior components, doors, under-hood components — all can be made with plastic.
Plastic and advanced materials are a huge growth opportunity for the Upstate, and it takes a variety of composite materials to meet the production needs of a vehicle.
Among the most common (and inexpensive) plastics are unreinforced plastics and short-fiber-filled composites. Long-fiber-filled composites, which are light and used in special applications, and continuous fiber-filled plastics, which are very light, yet very strong, are saved for exotic and specialty applications.
In fact, a point of pride for the industry is that “carbon fiber” is a form of plastic that’s currently in high demand by a number of industries, including automotive, aerospace, and sporting goods.
Clemson University researchers have adapted their work to meet the surge in composite usage within our state, according to university officials.
Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor in Clemson’s Automotive Engineering school, is working to create an automobile door that is 42.5 percent lighter than a conventional one but still meets or exceeds fit, finish, and functional requirements. He works at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, where he is pioneering “a new cross-functional focus area” in composites that he terms the “intelligent revitalization of composites design and manufacturing.” His door project, funded through a $5.81 million grant from the Department of Energy, is a prime example.
Amod Ogale, director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Films and Dow Chemical Professor of Chemical Engineering, is part of a nationwide team working to make composite materials less expensive so that they can be used more widely. Ogale’s objective is to make a low-cost feedstock — which is the raw material that goes into composite materials — and a manufacturing process. Researchers hope to create a new type of composite material they will call TuFF, which stands for tailorable universal feedstock for forming, said Ogale.
Top: Unveiled at the 2017 North American International Auto Show, the XiM17 by Yanfeng Automotive Interiors helps answer the question, “What will people do in their vehicle if they no longer have to drive?” It is designed to enable the use of several modes — lounge, meeting, family, and driving — allowing the autonomous vehicle to be used in various ways by multiple people.