With technical developments, possible toughening of CAFE standards and market dynamics as the drivers, the applications for reinforced plastic are on quite a tare. In the so-so year of 2002, reinforced plastics (RP) usage grew by 10 percent in automotive applications, gaining some 42 million pounds.

When I stepped out of the light-duty sector into the heavy-duty vehicle w" />

Issue: Feb 2003


The Fast Lane



Movin Up in Class Wrapped in Fiberglass

by Rob Wilson

Rob WilsonWith technical developments, possible toughening of CAFE standards and market dynamics as the drivers, the applications for reinforced plastic are on quite a tare. In the so-so year of 2002, reinforced plastics (RP) usage grew by 10 percent in automotive applications, gaining some 42 million pounds.

When I stepped out of the light-duty sector into the heavy-duty vehicle world back in 1979, I frankly found a lot more going on there. Reinforced plastics quickly were taking over in applications like hoods.

Oh, the volumes are far smaller, but these components typically weigh in at 120 to 150 pounds each. Makes a nice multiplier. And, that same part in steel has to be north of 400 pounds. To the exclamation, "Hey, pop open the hood on this baby," I say, let's think it over.

The change really came to pass because truckers really do care about fuel economy and payload. Show a truck fleet a 0.1 mpg improvement in fuel economy and you've made a friend for life.

It is certainly true that heavy-duty truck builders are not quite as picky about paint finish as the automotive market and that probably accelerated the process.

Now I'm back on the light vehicle side of the market and the state of application art for reinforced plastics has been transformed. We recently visited with folks from the Automotive Composites Alliance and got a good overview of the progress.

For one thing, reinforced plastics are migrating up market. Up market cars are generally lower in production volume so the savings in body dies loom larger in the cost equation. They are aboard in numerous applications on vehicles including the Maybach, the Hummer H2, the Cadillac XLR and the Lincoln Aviator.

And reinforced plastics are getting more scores in structural parts on cars like the Viper VGX, which is an absolute RP showcase. Structural carbon fiber/low density glass sheet molding compound (SMC) is used on fender supports, headlamp supports, inner door panels, inner and outer windshield surround panels.

The development of an ultra-violet cured sealer and tough class "A" SMC can now eliminate defects on plastic composites body panels. I'm told this allows composite body panels to meet or beat paint specs and absolutely compete with steel finish defect levels.

We seem to have this market dynamic working today where each market segment is seeing a proliferation of models and this is driving down the volumes for each specific model. That means you have to be able to tool each of them for less to achieve profitability.

CAFE is still an unknown. We don't know how much they will increase or what the timetable might be, or if some trucks and SUVs will be reclassified and treated like automobiles. We're dead certain hybrids and fuel cell cars will be lighter. Looks like RP will be an increasingly important weapon in the arsenal.

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