There is a certain risk involved when one too hurriedly attempts to put a trade show like JEC Europe in perspective. That said, for those who did not make it to Paris this year, I’ll hazard this first memo of observations, written as I jet home following the three-day (March 12-14) event in Paris.
The incursion of composites into structural automotive parts continues, despite disagreement among industry observers about the seriousness and the pace of the effort. Some at the show argued that the use of composites in automotive passenger cells is sporadic at best and may never become widespread, despite the launch this year of the BMW i3, which features an all carbon fiber passenger cage. Others argue that the i3 will be remembered as the first of many vehicles to employ structural composites — the launch of a new era in composites application.
For the record, you can put me in the latter camp. Even before JEC, there was much evidence of substantial effort to develop resin systems and manufacturing processes that would facilitate high-speed/large-volume production of composite chassis members and body panels. At the show, the signs were concentrated in one location and hard to ignore. Teijin/Toho Tenax, KraussMaffei, Dieffenbacher, Momentive, Cannon, DSM, Barrday, Quickstep, Globe Machine, Toray, Dow, Ticona, TenCate, Owens Corning and Gurit either announced or reiterated plans along these lines, involving glass fiber- and carbon fiber-reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics.
A fad? Market forces say otherwise: Emissions restrictions in Europe and new U.S. fuel efficiency standards are putting pressure on carmakers like never before to lose weight. Although some automakers might wish that such weight could be lost with conversion to aluminum alone, the fact is that it will take a combination of materials, intelligently applied, along with advances in engine fuel efficiency.
And that takes me to my second point: It was clear in Paris that the effort to make automotive composites molding viable for production vehicles is pushing the entire composites industry down the path of improved productivity. The composites industry’s dynamism has us all accustomed to the advent of new technologies and products that move the industry forward, but the fact is that winning over automakers (and other fence-sitters) will require that good, old-fashioned basic manufacturing gets better. And “better” means faster, more consistent, more repeatable and more predictable, with quantifiable, traceable quality control.
Look at it this way: We’d all like to go zipping down the highway in a new Lamborghini Aventador, but for practical, reliable day-after-day transportation, there’s nothing like a well-tuned, well-engineered, well-built Ford, Toyota or BMW. Suppliers to the composites industry see this, and at JEC there were a variety of new products and technologies on display designed to make everyday composites manufacturing just a little bit “better.” Perhaps, even if composites in automotive becomes the fad some claim, we will all be more savvy and capable for it.
That’s all for now. Look for a full report on JEC Europe 2013 in your June issue of CT.