When it comes to mega trends driving today’s global auto industry, the advancements and materials that are helping manufacturers cut vehicle weight to meet stringent emissions standards are at the forefront.
Considering 75 percent of fuel consumption is related to vehicle weight, the appetite for replacing metal with composite plastic, foam and natural fiber components is projected to grow in the next decade. A study performed by the Center for Automotive Research found the use of lightweight, composite materials will increase significantly if automakers want to achieve an overall weight reduction of 10 and 15 percent. The center has also projected about 25 pounds more plastic and composite materials will be used for vehicles by 2020, replacing mild strength steels. This demand is coupled with increased opportunities for lightweighting through material and manufacturing advancements.
Through advanced chemistry and research, BASF has been leading these trends by developing solutions and methods of material replacement that enable dramatic weight savings for OEMs.
Plastic Makes it Possible
As lightweighting is applied to every vehicle being launched across the globe, plastics are playing even more of a critical role in vehicle manufacturing than ever before.
And there’s a good reason why.
Composite applications have often contributed to more than 20 percent mass savings.
Composites have a strong track record of high performance, achieving the same desired effect as aluminum and steel in terms of durability and safety, while also reducing weight. These applications have often contributed to more than 20 percent mass savings.
With a full portfolio of plastic composite solutions, BASF has placed a strong focus on innovation and close customer cooperation with customizable solutions that will cut weight and can be adapted to specific requirements.
Performance mineral extenders from BASF Kaolin’s Translink® product line help compounders and automakers improve the mechanical properties in components such as hubcaps, mirror housing and headlamp housing. In addition to improving the polymer processing, these high brightness surface treated kaolin improve both impact strength and stiffness of these plastic parts.
“At BASF, we’re material specialists, and our job is to put our material, design and technical expertise to work for our customers,” said Mark Szendro, transportation marketing director for BASF’s Performance Materials Division. “And we’ve found that when we’re part of the decision making process, we’re consistently able to lower the weight, reduce the number of parts and optimize strength – delivering the lightweight, structurally sound systems to meet automaker targets.”
This is in part due to BASF’s proprietary prediction technology, ULTRASIM®, which helps automakers design and develop lightweight performance parts by eliminating ‘do overs.’ This analysis software is used at each phase of the component’s development for design optimization and to monitor virtually against potential part failure. Offering 95 percent accuracy in terms of expected performance of a material, ULTRASIM saves automakers time and money when developing plastic parts.
Below are a few examples of how BASF has contributed to plastic usage success stories in the automotive industry:
- The Opel Astra OPC seat pan – the world’s first production part made from a thermoplastic laminate with continuous fiber reinforcement – is 45 percent lighter than its predecessor. This innovation was the recipient of the Inaugural Center for Automotive Research Altair Enlighten Award.
- As part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Multi-Material Lightweight Vehicle Project, BASF’s composite formulations resulted in a 30 percent weight savings in the oil pan and engine front cover.
- The driver and passenger seat backrests in the BMW i3 are the first injection molded and uncoated structural parts made from polyamide to have a visible surface and to be used in the vehicle interior. These plastic seat rests weigh only 2 kilograms.
- The carbon fiber grille opening reinforcement on the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang was 24 percent lighter than the prior plastic-metal hybrid version and 2.5 pounds lighter than the traditional metal stampings over molded with plastic concept. In addition, Ford chose to play up the innovative nature of this GOR by forgoing the beauty cover, contributing to another 1.9 pounds in weight savings.
- The world’s first polyamide transmission crossbeam on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is 25 percent lighter than the previous die-cast aluminum beam.
- The all-new Lincoln Continental seat as a whole was lightweighted by 8 percent but BASF contributed to a 20 percent weight reduction for the seat pan when compared to its metal predecessor. The project also resulted in a 15 percent cost savings. This innovation received top honors during the Society of Plastic Engineers Annual Automotive Innovation Awards competition.
“With the help of our materials, customers can engineer lightweight solutions that effectively replace once-established metal structures and components, opening up a wide realm of possibilities in the automotive market,” said Jeffrey Hagar, market segment manager for automotive interiors for BASF’s Performance Materials Division. “Combined with ULTRASIM, BASF gives customers confidence in expected material behavior before prototype investments are made, as it accurately tests potential points of failure and optimized material use.”
Foam Expands Lightweighting Capabilities
Lightweight, high-strength and resistant to excessive heat, foam systems have proven to be an excellent method to reduce emissions and meet global fuel economy standards.
“The inclusion of foam systems as part of an OEM’s lightweighting strategy continues to gain traction because the material is low weight but offers significant strength and stability,” said Brian Shaner, market segment manager for automotive BIW, chassis and exterior for BASF’s Performance Materials Division. “At BASF, we’re focused on innovating in this space, bringing lightweight foams with added benefits such as fire resistance, sound absorption properties and best-in-class efficiency when it comes to cycle times and material usage to market.”
One of the key benefits of using foam is that it offers near limitless shape and size properties.
One of the key benefits of using foam is that it offers near limitless shape and size properties. For example, Elastoflex®, one of BASF’s foam solutions, can be injected into the vehicles body in white structure during the manufacturing process. It quickly expands to fill cavities and sills, offering increased strength while dampening noise in the cabin.
Other examples demonstrating the benefits of BASF’s foam systems include:
- Basotect®TG, a flexible, open-cell foam made from melamine resin, was used underneath the engine cover for the Volkswagen EA888 four-cylinder engine because of its superior sound absorption properties. With a density of 9kg/m3 or, 0.56 pcf, this BASF foam is lighter than conventional insulating materials and retains its properties up to 240 degrees Celsius – an important factor for this turbocharged engine.
- For Daimler AG’s smart fortwo small city car, BASF and Fehrer Composite Components used the flexible and semi-rigid polyurethane foam system Elastoflex® to create a new roof that is 30 percent lighter than the previous roof. This was the first exterior part featuring the honeycomb sandwich structure – corrugated paper surrounded by fiber glass sheets layered with polyurethane – with a class A finish.
Resin-Reinforced Natural Fibers
While not as widely discussed as other materials, the use of natural fibers is a trend that offers both sustainability and lightweighting advantages to the auto industry, potentially leading to major impacts on how automakers reduce vehicle weight.
BASF developed an innovative zero-emission thermoset technology, Acrodur, which is a water-based, formaldehyde-free, cross-linking resin that creates only one byproduct during the curing process – water. This technology is perfectly suited for molded parts made from a variety of fibers including glass, polyurethane, polyamide and even natural fibers.
Some of the applications Acrodur has been used for include the following:
- International Automotive Components Group (IAC) and BASF partnered to develop the world’s first roof frame made entirely of natural fibers, dubbed FiberFrame (pictured above). This component made its debut on the new Mercedes Benz E-class. The roof frame is 40 percent lighter than its metal counterpart. The Acrodur binder ensured the loading capacity and heat resistance of the lightweight component.
- The team who developed the Hyundai RN30 concept car used water-based binder Acrodur with natural fibers to create the dashboard on the chemistry-super charged vehicle. In fact, Sven Wittke, of Hyundai Design Center Europe, said “it’s not a typical race car; it’s a green race car.”
“Lightweighting is altering the way we think about the types of materials that can be used for vehicle construction,” says Henning Karbstein, manager of new business development and idea management at BASF. “And with BASF’s expertise and dedication to innovation, a myriad of solutions are being created for components that are stable, lightweight and heat resistant. So as the automotive industry continues to contend with fuel consumption and emissions reduction challenges, BASF will be there with inventive answers to meet the demand.”