Fiber-Reinforced Plastic Composites: 5 Automotive Trends to Watch

Fiber-Reinforced Plastic Composites:  5 Automotive Trends to Watch

While US motor vehicle production levels are basically unchanged from ten years ago, the use of fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) composites in motor vehicles has expanded by nearly 40 percent.  Several overlapping trends are driving the growth of FRP Composites in this market:

1. Automotive Lightweighting

The amount of composites used in automobiles is rising to help meet increased fuel efficiency standards.  Tighter corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards are scheduled to go into effect in 2025.  Fiber-reinforced plastic composites are lighter in weight and have similar strength to conventional materials such as aluminum and steel.  However, the incoming head of the EPA has expressed a possibility of reviewing the standards, which could affect composites penetration in the motor vehicles market. 

2. Growth in Strategic Alliances

The US Department of Energy’s Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is a public-private partnership organized to boost advanced composite manufacturing in the US.  The Institute believes that advanced composites could decrease the weight of a car by 50 percent, leading to fuel efficiency gains of 35 percent without sacrificing performance or safety. 

 In recent years, a number of firms have teamed up to develop technologies to reach mass production levels in motor vehicles.  SGL Carbon and BMW maintain a joint venture with a carbon fiber production facility in Washington state that is the world’s single largest carbon fiber production facility.  The plant’s output is earmarked for BMW’s German-built electric i3 and hybrid i8 vehicles.  Since 2012, Teijin has maintained an agreement with GM to co-develop advanced carbon-fiber reinforced thermoplastic composite products in the automotive sector.  Ford is also involved in an agreement with Dow Chemical and Turkey’s Aksa to combine facilities and expertise to develop lightweight components for automobiles. 

3. Market consolidation

Several larger firms have been actively acquiring smaller firms that align well with their existing composites capabilities.  Toray, a Japan-based manufacturer of carbon fibers and composites, acquired US-based Zoltek in 2014 in part for its presence in the automotive market.  Toray also took a 20 percent interest in Plasan Carbon Composites, a carbon fiber parts and assembly supplier for higher-end sports cars.  Teijin got into the game in September 2016, when it agreed to acquire Continental Structural Plastics, a supplier of composite components for motor vehicles. 

4. Rise of Composite Usage in Medium- and Heavy-Duty Trucks and Buses

Growth in production of medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses are expected to outpace those of light vehicles through 2020, as a result of increased economic activity and goods transportation requirements.  Because of their larger size, this class of motor vehicles uses greater amounts of composites on a per-vehicle basis.  Composites can reduce tire and brake expenses in addition to reducing fuel costs.  The US Postal Service, for example, is considering composite-body trucks in the 2018 redesign of its delivery vehicles.  After years of producing composite leaf springs for light vehicles, IFC Composites of Germany has developed FRP composite leaf springs for heavier trucks, which can save up to nearly 900 pounds in vehicle weight.  

5. Expansion of Product Offerings to Face Industry Challenges

One of the tasks of IACMI is to reduce both the costs and processing time of FRP composites to a point that they are more competitive with more traditionally-used materials.  Producers have developed what they call “snap-cure” epoxy resins, which can thoroughly wet out a fiber component in five minutes or less.  Hexion has released an EPIKOTE/EPICUKE epoxy resin system for use in transfer molding (RTM) and liquid compression molding (LCM) processes that molded and cured in a minute.  Dow Automotive Systems also offers an epoxy resin system, called VORAFORCE, that has a 60-second molding cycle time. 

Want to Learn More?

To find out more about other FRP composites in the automotive as well as other markets, check out Fredonia’s Fiber-Reinforced Plastic Composites and High Performance Composites

About the Author:

Larry Catsonis is an analyst at the Freedonia Group, covering plastic and resin products.