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Reducing Automotive Cost (Not Weight) Will Drive Composite Growth

22 February 2011

Although replacing steel with composites can reduce vehicle weight and overall fuel consumption, cost savings will be the primary driver for adoption, according to Lux Research.

The accelerating demand for more fuel-efficient cars has raised hopes that automakers will accelerate their adoption of lightweight automotive composites. As an alternative to steel and aluminium, polymer-based composites can lower overall vehicle weight and help reduce fuel consumption. Yet, despite their potential benefits for consumers and the environment, composites are unlikely to replace steel except in applications where they reduce manufacturing costs for the automaker, according to a new report by Lux Research.

Titled ""Chasing Cars: Can Composites Catch Up to Steel?,"" the report surveys the factors promoting and impeding the adoption of composite materials, examines their potential to replace metals as the dominant material in cars, and identifies technologies in development that could potentially change how composites compare down the road.

""The conventional wisdom that automakers will adopt composites solely for weight reduction misses the mark,"" said David Hwang, an analyst for Lux Research and the report's lead author. ""In reality, composites will find the most use in places where they help cut manufacturing costs, such as in low-volume production and electric vehicles.""

In preparing its analysis, Lux Research surveyed leading automakers and composite material suppliers regarding factors that would most likely accelerate or slow adoption of composites in automotive design. Among the report's key findings:

  • Powertrain improvements and high-strength metals offer cheaper routes to efficiency. Despite their potential to lower overall vehicle weight, composites lag behind more economical solutions for driving down fuel consumption. Improvements to the drivetrain, like adding turbochargers or hybridization, can improve fuel efficiency up to 50%, while aluminum and high- and ultra-high-strength steel can lower weight. This can be accomplished without imposing changes to existing production, supply, and recycling infrastructure, meaning composites will need to leverage benefits apart from fuel-efficiency to find adoption.
  • Composites are actually cheaper than steel at low production volumes. Although composites will see some success in high-volume applications with sheet molding compound body panels, most growth will be derived from low-volume production where part consolidation grants composites a cost advantage over steel. Attractive applications include complex non-structural and semi-structural internal components, like front-end modules and seat frames.
  • Advanced material technologies can help composites stage a comeback. New nanoparticle additive technologies, high-throughput molding processes for structural components, and bio-based materials could drastically change the way composites measure up to steel if and when they emerge from development.

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