Assembly lines are built to make large numbers of vehicles in a process that makes substituting plastics difficult. There are exceptions for low-level production cars — those of 50,000 units or less annually — but the system is not designed for high levels of plastics use, said Helms, chief engineer for materials engineering, testing and standards, and product development.
"If I get my production levels low enough, if I can find the sweet spot, then I can make a business case," he said.
General Motors is interested in lightweight solutions, said Fabio de Souza, global commodity purchasing manager for GM's fluids and resins group. But he agreed that the business case must make sense.
Ford is interested in the potential of plastics to reduce weight in future products, especially if the federal government raises corporate average fuel economy standards, Helms said. But for now, widespread use of plastics is not a short-term goal, he said.
Globally, the auto industry is using plastics more in some regions — particularly Europe and Asia, said Robert Eller, president of Robert Eller Associates LLC. Plastics are winning business in Europe, replacing steel for fender modules.
For example, Cie. Plastic Omnium makes a talc-filled plastic fender module for the BMW X5 crossover. The module includes the headlight and other parts. The molder has signed an innovation agreement to work with French carmaker PSA/-Peugeot-Citroen on future projects including fender, roof, fascia and front-end modules.