Focus on Light Weight at VDI Plastics in Automobile Construction Forum

06 May 2011

This year's VDI Plastics in Automobile Construction International Forum took place in Mannheim on April 6 & 7 2011 at the Rosengarten Congress Centre. Some 1300 participants were present and 90 exhibitors showed their companies' products and services.

Some 30 presentations covering a wide variety of topics related to the development and use of plastics and composites in the automobile sector were given.

Weight reduction was more than ever a key topic on the automotive industry mind this year. Cars with traditional engines need lower weight to continue the reduction in emissions while the electric cars under development, such as BMW's Megacity, need significant weight saving to compensate for additional battery weight, sometimes as much as 600kg.

The press conference at the VDI Forum this year focused on carbon fibre in the context of light weight vehicle construction. An interesting panel made up of senior managers from SGL, BASF and Audi presented their various perspectives on the way forward for lightweight construction.

Dr Jger, Senior Vice President of SGL, spoke of the reasons for SGL's choice of the State of Washington as the location of their new carbon fibre plant was the cheap cost of hydro-electric power and that it would have been unfeasible for energy cost reasons to put such a plant in Europe. He estimates current global carbon fibre consumption at around 35,000 tons with effective capacity of somewhere around 42,000 tons. Global consumption is expected to rise to some 60-65,000 tons by 2015 of which some 5-6,000 tons will be in automotive applications.

SGL expect industrial grade carbon fibre pricing to be some 15/kg. The Audi panel member, Gnter Deinzer, Leader of Audi's Composite Technology and Property Development, indicated that the car industry needs carbon fibre to be half the level indicated by SGL and processing costs need to be slashed by 90%. He later gave a presentation of the development of carbon fibre composites at Audi.

Dr. Willy Hoven-Nievelstein, Senior Vice President Engineering Plastics Europe, talked about some of the resin matrix developments involving caprolactam, which has lower viscosity than epoxy that would help increase the speed of processing of carbon fibre based parts for automotive made via the RTM process. The industry needs cycle times of the order of one minute for the process to be viable. Mr Deinzer indicated that although there have been many claims that cycle times have been significantly reduced, he had yet to see any real industrially proven progress and cycle times are typically still of the order of thirty minutes.

In addition to these cost and processing aspects, there were many papers covering a wide range of topics related to future design needs of cars as well as conference sessions on car interiors and exteriors. Dr. Thiemo Erb of Porsche gave an interesting overview of the history of the use of carbon fibre based composites at Porsche. There were also sessions on the use of plastics in engine-related applications as well as a session on trucks which included an overview presentation by Hartmut Hberle of MAN on the use of composites in trucks and buses.

Overall this annual conference is a useful and effective way to keep up to date with all the trends in plastics and composites, mainly in the German vehicle industry although there are also presentations by some of the US companies as well. Most papers are in German but simultaneous translation into English is provided. Apart from the conferences, there are numerous opportunities to network during the decent size breaks and the exhibition also provides opportunities to get into more depth on some of the products and services.

Without a doubt the global automotive industry is set for many changes in the near future and the German automotive sector with its history of innovation in the use of composite materials is clearly one to watch.

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