Carmakers cut weight, fuel use with plastic

MUNICH — Plastics suppliers expect to benefit as automakers strive to reduce fuel use by building lighter vehicles.

Today, plastics account for around 14 percent of a car by weight. By 2010, that will increase to 19 percent, says Raimar Jahn, CEO of the BASF Performance Polymers division.

At BMW, plastics make up 17 percent of the parts in new models, up from 12 percent in 1990.

In coming years, suppliers such as BASF, Dow Automotive and Sabic Innovative Plastics predict above-average growth in their plastics businesses.

Another factor driving demand is the rising price of steel. Plastic body panels weigh half as much as steel ones. And plastics offer greater design freedom.

"Engineers are well-aware of the advantages of plastics," Jahn said.

Japanese and Korean carmakers appear most receptive to plastic parts and panels. "They are typically more progressive in plastics," said Todd Prey, Dow Automotive's vice president for plastics.

Hyundai Motor Europe used the QarmaQ (pronounced CAR'-mac) concept crossover at the 2007 Geneva auto show to preview advanced plastic body panels. The crossover — developed with Sabic, formerly GE Plastics — was 88 pounds lighter than a vehicle using traditional materials.

Plastics are harder to incorporate in powertrain and structural body panels, partly because engineers have no experience using the material.

"That's a hurdle for a company that sells plastic, but also an opportunity for us to go to the automaker and become their leading designers for plastics," Prey said.

Steel makers say the advances in plastics technology are no threat. The average proportion of steel in car bodies is still above 90 percent, said Bernd Overmaat, spokesman for German supplier ThyssenKrupp Steel.

ThyssenKrupp is developing thinner and stronger lightweight steel and is also working on combining steel and plastic for use in body panels. c

Tags: Suppliers

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