Plastics are majorly processed into automotive components and parts owing to their ease of manufacturing, possible sourcing from renewable raw materials and relative ease of improved design. Further, automotive plastics play a key role in performance and safety innovations in commercial vehicles, HMVs, modern cars and SUVs. They are usually strong, durable, scratch resistance, recyclable, resistive against abrasion, improve noise and vibration control and permit integration, moulding, and design of automobile components.
Key to the future of light weighting
Environmental imperatives and safety requirements are two critical issues facing the automotive industry worldwide. Tight emission standards and stringent regulations have compelled automobile OEMs to seek alternative methods of vehicular weight reduction in order to improve efficiency. According to a report from Crystal Market Research, the major factors that are driving the growth of automotive plastics industry are prospective of automotive plastic in volume reduction in consumption of fuel by abbreviating the total weight of the automobile, rising prices of steel and irons and enhanced durability and strength of advanced automotive plastic. The report says that in advanced cars, there is almost 50% plastic of the overall vehicle volume, but bestow only 10% of the entire vehicle weight which makes cars light in weight and augments the fuel economy.
Usually, an average car consists of 5.8% to 10% of plastics in terms of overall vehicle weight, depending on fuel efficiency standards and performance requirements, with consumption in vehicular equipment accounting for over 105 kg in an average car. A report from Grand View Research suggests that this percentage is expected to increase over the near future, owing to the growing demand from consumers for high-performance, lightweight and fuel-efficient vehicles. The report states that weight reduction offers a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases emission and fuel consumption, conserving non-renewable crude oil reserves. For example, for every 10% weight reduction in the vehicle, would improve fuel economy by 5-7%. Hence, 1 kg weight decrease in the vehicle is expected to reduce 20 kg of carbon emission in the atmosphere.
Engineered plastics are fast becoming the future for two industries—chemical and automotive—as environmental concerns are increasingly affecting both. This presents a significant challenge and opportunity for both the industries to look into the recyclability factor of the materials used. Hence, chemical companies are collaborating to innovate with materials makers, parts suppliers and manufacturers, to help achieve greater sustainability in the automotive industry. As a result, developments are currently witnessed in the automotive plastic production and recycling system.
Various reports have shown that chemical companies have developed ways to reduce plastic’s environmental footprint with bio-sourced and recyclable materials. A bioplastic is a substance made from organic biomass sources, unlike conventional plastics, which are made from petroleum. Bioplastics are produced from renewables, with two main agricultural sources—starch-based, derived mostly from sugar cane; and corn, potatoes, beets, and oil polymers. Also, improvements in recycling processes have influenced manufacturers to use high performance products. Plastics undergo five different stages while recycling, such as sorting, washing, shredding, identification & classification and extruding into final component or product.
High performance plastics
High performance plastics meet higher requirements than standard and engineering plastics because of their better mechanical properties, higher chemical and/or higher heat stability. Today, high performance plastics are playing a major role in the automotive industry. Below are a few choice materials used for vehicle part and component applications that make up almost 70% of the total high performance plastics used in a car.
Polypropylene (PP): Polypropylene offers excellent chemical and electrical resistance at very high temperatures. It is semi-rigid, translucent and also provides integral hinge property. PP is lightweight as compared to other materials and widely used as a thermal insulator and noise & vibration dampener in vehicular components.
Polyurethane (PU): Polyurethane exhibits superior properties, such as high tensile strength, abrasive strength, hardness, and abrasion resistance. Rising demand from automotive OEMs and electronic appliance manufacturers for applications such as refrigeration insulation, interior trims and seat cushioning has significantly influenced its growth.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): PVC is flame retardant and has good flexibility and thermal stability, and low (to no) lead content. Polyvinyl chloride moulding compounds can be extruded, injection moulded, compression moulded, and blow moulded to form a huge variety of products, either rigid or flexible depending on the amount and type of plasticisers used. It finds application in automobile instruments panels, sheathing of electrical cables, pipes, doors and more.
ABS: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a copolymer made by polymerising styrene and acrylonitrile in the presence of polybutadiene. The styrene gives the plastic a shiny, impervious surface. The butadiene, a rubbery substance, provides resilience even at low temperatures. A variety of modifications can be made to improve impact resistance, toughness, and heat resistance. It finds application in automotive body parts, dashboards, wheel covers, etc.
Polycarbonate (PC): Amorphous polycarbonate polymer offers a unique combination of stiffness, hardness and toughness. It exhibits excellent weathering, creep, impact, optical, electrical and thermal properties. Because of its extraordinary impact strength, it is the material for car bumpers, helmets of all kinds and bullet-proof glass substitutes.
In general, automotive plastics find application in interior & exterior furnishings, power train, chassis, electrical components, and under the hood parts. It is employed in the dashboard, bumpers seats, body panels, fuel systems, interior trim, under-bonnet components, lighting, exterior trim, liquid reservoirs, and upholstery. A study published by Research and Markets shows that the rising demand in power train and interior & exterior furnishing applications is fuelling the automotive plastics market. The study forecasts the market to grow at a CAGR of around 8.8% over the next decade to reach approximately $57.2 billion by 2025.
Another industry report from Crystal Market Research anticipates that powertrain appears to be the highest-growing application, which helps vehicle producers to decrease weight & incorporate complicated parts, which eventually boosts performance, renders higher productivity, and saves cost. The report highlights that the advancements in the area of durable and tough automotive plastic are projected to amplify the use of plastic in advanced cars. Concerning interiors, automotive plastics have established to be an incredible material for building durable, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing interior parts.
Similarly, a study published by Grand View Research indicates that interior furnishings have emerged as the leading application and accounted for over 50% of the total volume, in 2016. The interior components, such as seat bases, load floors, headliners and rear package shelves are being constructed entirely from high performance plastics such as GMT & ABS composites, instead of conventional rubber and metal, to foster weight savings. The finding from the report reveals that proliferation of digitalisation has fostered the demand for plastics integrated into car dashboards to support highly advanced electronics with futuristic technology & features. Safety concerns and high electrical insulation properties of plastics have propelled their demand in instrument panels containing advanced electronic systems.
The changing landscape…
According to various research reports, Asia-Pacific was the dominant market and accounted for around 50% of the total market volume in 2016. The shift in production landscape towards emerging economies of Asia-Pacific, particularly China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia is expected to positively influence industry growth. The industry reports say that the expanding manufacturing base and increasing investments in advanced technologies for vehicular production is expected to bring about a new era of automobiles, positively influencing the sector, and factors such as fuel efficiency have driven sustainable plastics demand across the globe.
With plastic playing a key role in helping create today’s light-weight, fuel efficient vehicles, it’s crucial that today’s auto manufacturers collaborate with the chemical producers to address, both, performance and sustainability challenges, in order to remain competitive and prosperous.