Not so long ago automobiles were almost exclusively made from iron and steel. But fierce competition, and a push for lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles has led to the introduction and continued implementation of aluminum, plastics and a host of various composites. Much of this started in the early 1990s when the United States Council for Automotive Research was developed as a consortium between automakers Daimler/Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.
Major shifts in the materials making up automobiles is of vital interest to executives in the raw materials industry, but it's also of keen interest to the parts suppliers. The push for new materials has been fueled by the need for better fuel economy, highly-competitive marketplaces, and tightening environmental concerns. The challenge for automakers is to produce inexpensive, environmentally conscious vehicles that are safe, attractive and economical to operate.
Along with advances in tooling, machinery, component design and developments in fabrication methodology come technological advances in materials. Plastic composite materials have had the largest impact on how automotive designers select their materials. Plastics resin producers are continually developing both new plastics resins and variations on existing resins. One area getting particular attention today is the use of nanocomposite technology to improve plastic performance in both physical properties stiffness and toughness as well as in scratch and mar resistance. With more than 60 basic types of plastics readily available in the marketplace, it is clear that plastics producers are continuing to develop new resins and fine-tune existing resin formulations to meet exacting and ever-changing market needs.
But regardless of the promises, such new materials will be added to the production cycle only when they reduce costs and create competitive advantage. With massive investment in current manufacturing machinery primarily for use with metals, it is incumbent on alternative material industries to demonstrate that their materials and processes make economic sense and performance sense.
A major focus of automotive scientists is on developing new lightweight, high-strength materials since fuel efficiency increases as a vehicle's weight decreases. In fact, researchers are aiming to cut vehicle weight up to 40 percent - almost 600 kg - compared to today's average mid-sized sedan.