Plastics have been a key enabler in the auto industry’s quest for lightweighting and design flexibility, both in India as well as global markets. A major producer of automotive plastics, India has seen exponential growth in demand for automotive plastics in the last half a decade. A key global manufacturer of high-tech polymer materials, Covestro has been instrumental in addressing the major concerns of automotive OEMs regarding lightweighting, design versatility and cost reduction. Auto Tech Review met Ajay Durrani, Managing Director, Covestro India, to gain perspectives on the growing application of plastics in vehicles and future trends in the sector.
THE INDIAN SCENARIO
India is a large automotive market and OEMs are eager to introduce technologically superior materials to boost efficiency of their products. Automotive components too have been evolving with time, and Covestro is investing into solutions that answer the needs arising from various trends in the industry.
Offering an industry perspective, Durrani said technical capability and innovation focus of the automotive value chain remains limited. Indian Tier 1 suppliers are getting access to design capability and technology either via JVs, technical collaboration and acquisitions abroad. However, the last five years have seen a lot of multinational Tier 1 suppliers setting-up manufacturing plants as well as building their R&D capabilities in the country. This has augmented well for Covestro.
There is still a lot of prejudice in the entire value chain regarding the use of varied grade of plastics, and the engineering plastic industry needs to further step up on offering more compelling value propositions, supported by modern simulations and capable R&D set-up, mentioned Durrani.
With rapid advancements taking place in material development for vehicles, cars of the future are expected to be ultra-light, energy efficient and boast of design elements with smooth, high-quality surfaces. Covestro has been developing high-tech engineering thermoplastics, which will be instrumental in taking these concepts from the drawing board to the showroom floor. Coatable composites with a polycarbonate matrix are also seen as a solution for lightweighting and CO2 reduction.
Currently, the car body, engine, windshield and battery are a few specific areas, where polymers are fuelling lightweighting initiatives. Polycarbonate and polycarbonate blends provide automotive designers and engineers with lightweight, high-performing engineering thermoplastics that make eye-catching design possible and contribute to vehicle fuel efficiency by reduced vehicle weight.
For example, panoramic roofs using Makrolon polycarbonate glazing and Bayblend frames can reduce component weight by up to 50 % compared to glass, said Durrani. Not just that; polycarbonates help reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, while improving strength, style and safety.
Combining polyurethane with carbon fibre turns it into a strong composite material, which is ideal for fabricating complete structural components. Similarly, ‘vehicle-lighting polycarbonate’ offers a number of advantages over glass for lighting applications, as it supports a high degree of design freedom and is simpler and more cost-efficient to process. The material also promotes the trend toward LEDs, because lenses made of polycarbonate focus and guide light from the diodes to create an optimal field of view. For instance, many high-end vehicles today sport ambient LED lighting in the interiors. The outer shell of such lights is made of polycarbonates.
Polycarbonate special blends are also used for vehicle front grilles and trim parts to be formed in one mould. Subsequent operations can provide finishing effects such as matte black or metallisation. Mirrors, bezels, spoilers and other exterior trim parts formed from using such materials offer selectively high resistance to fuel, oil, grease and other chemicals, while also providing excellent dimensional stability and toughness.
In India, CO2 emission regulations are becoming stricter and there is a growing trend in the automobile industry to make vehicles lighter. To meet these needs of automobile manufacturers, Covestro has developed carbon fibre composites in both polyurethane and polycarbonate chemistry. These are used for structural components in cars, thereby offering huge potential for reducing vehicle weight and thus cutting down CO2 emissions.
Polypropylene, PVC, polyurethane, polyethylene, polycarbonate and polyamide (nylon) are some of the commonly used plastic materials in the auto industry. Plastic is primarily used in the compartments like body panels, bumpers and fascia systems, steering wheels and light panels among other sections in the vehicle.
The biggest challenge facing OEMs today is to reduce carbon footprint, while improving aesthetics and performance of the vehicles. Globally, road traffic generates one-fifth of global CO2 emissions, and this figure is on the rise. A car that is just 10 % lighter consumes about five per cent less fuel. In this context, polymers have proved that they can contribute immensely. Polymers today are lightweight and equally, if not more, strong than metal.
TEXT: Anwesh Koley