PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- European carmakers increasingly will turn to plastics for exterior body panels, said speakers at last month's Plastics in Automotive Exteriors conference here.
The prediction was made despite end-of-life vehicle directives and competition from aluminum.
The future of plastics depends on the development of new materials and their costs, said keynote speaker Michel Costes, CEO of Mavel SA. The Paris consulting firm specializes in automotive materials analysis.
"We will see more and more applications on body panels," he said in an interview with Automotive News Europe, a sister publication of Automotive News. "The doors, the hood, a hatchback (lid), but not a full body made out of plastics except for some specific cars. The problem is the cost to obtain the class-A finish that you need for these types of parts."
While the amount of plastics in cars has risen as vehicles have gotten heavier, the proportion of plastics to the total car weight has increased only slightly. In European passenger cars, for example, the average plastic parts content in 2005 will be an estimated 11 percent, or 315 pounds. That compares with 10.6 percent, 293 pounds, in 2003 and 9.3 percent, 233 pounds, in 1998, according to Mavel data.
But the next generation of reinforced plastics, several of which were presented at the conference, is causing some optimism about the wider application of such products.
"I see a greater trend for using plastics for exterior body panels and really leveraging the advantages of plastic, which is design freedom and weight reduction," said Volker Kessler, industry manager for GE Plastics in Ruesselsheim, Germany. "Niche cars also may be one of the major market drivers for the automotive industry, and even plastics have an advantage cost-wise in doing a small production (series)."
Although GE's new materials are not commercially available, "there will be applications soon" in cars that are being tested, Kessler said. Other companies developing cutting-edge plastics include Germany's Dieffenbacher GmbH & Co. KG and France's Rhodia Group.