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COMPOSIT Thematic Network Completes Automotive Industry Research Report

05 August 2004

The final industry reports of the COMPOSIT thematic network project are now available.

The reports are based on the collated findings of the ten COMPOSIT research clusters with one report for each of the aerospace, automotive and rail industries. The reports focus on the future research requirements of the transport sectors in order to facilitate an increased use of composite materials.

The first of these reports, available from the NetComposites website, relates to the automotive industry.

The automotive industry’s big adventure with composite materials began in 1953 and is still ongoing. Since these early days, it has been demonstrated that composites are reliable, lightweight, fatigue resistant and easily moulded to shape – in other words, a seemingly attractive alternative to metals. However, there has been no widespread switch from metals to composites in the automotive sector. This is because there are a number of technical issues relating to the use of composite materials that still have to be resolved including accurate material characterisation, manufacturing, surface finish and joining.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the COMPOSIT thematic network on “The Future Use of Composites in Transport” organised ten workshops on the use of composite materials in the aerospace, automotive and rail industries. These workshops focussed on a range of different issues: repair, design and structural simulation, crashworthiness, manufacturing, lightweighting, joining, recycling, modelling, fire safety and new material concepts. During each workshop, the state-of-the-art was analysed and assessed in order to highlight limitations in materials and processing, and identify recommendations for future research priorities.

The automotive report presents the findings of COMPOSIT in terms of the automotive industry. Key recommendations for future research priorities include:
The development of composite materials and processes for their application to mass production.
The development of highly automated composite material manufacturing processes.
Composite material cost reduction.
The development of composite material design, analysis and test procedures that are specific to the automotive industry.
The development of new numerical models for composite materials.

The reports suggested that there would appear to be significant future opportunities for composites in the automotive industry, especially if one considers their potential advantages compared to metals. Composites can offer benefits in terms of weight reduction, tooling cost savings, and design and styling freedom.

The use of composites for sports car applications has demonstrated their viability in both semi-structural (e.g. body panels) and structural (e.g. chassis) applications. The ability to locally vary composite reinforcements also offers significant advantages over metal tailored blanks (different thicknesses of sheet metal that are laser welded before stamping, e.g. in car doors). Furthermore, decades of use in aerospace and military applications has eased concerns over the durability and fatigue life of composites.

In terms of markets, opportunities might arise from the Far East, especially China. Forecasts anticipate that manufacturing and sales within the Chinese automotive market will double every year. To compete with low cost labour markets like this, European car manufacturers have the opportunity to specialise in advanced technologies and materials such as composites.

Another implication of the rapidly growing Asiatic markets is a possible global shortage of steel and its associated raw materials. Again, this may present opportunities for composites.

Today it is easy to paint a rosy picture about the future use of composite materials in the automotive industry. However, it would be a big strategic mistake to assume that the substitution of metals with composites will be unavoidable and automatic. There is no doubt that the number of composite material applications within the automotive sector will increase, but, as has been demonstrated by the aerospace sector, they will never completely replace metals.

Composite materials have enormous potential, but the composite industry will need to demonstrate their advantages for each application and compete with advocates of metals. Ideally, designers should seek to work with both materials without prejudice, exploiting their best characteristics for a given application. If this approach is to be adopted, special attention will be required when considering the joining of composite and metal parts. Another essential requirement is the development of the tools required for product design, simulation, manufacturing and regulation

Further information on COMPOSIT can be found at www.compositn.net. The complete reports can be downloaded from our site by clicking here





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