With lightweighting having established itself as one of the key methods of increasing fuel-efficiency, plastics have gained immense favour in the recent years. A key reason for this is the ability of engineers to have been able to successfully enhance the composition of plastic, which in turn has improved its performance on parameters such as strength, heat and durability. Keeping this in mind, we caught up with Sanjay Jain, Business Director, India, DSM Engineering Plastics, who briefed us of the new advancements being made in the space of plastics from an automotive perspective.
PLASTIC TO METAL
With an increasing adoption of plastics in parts traditionally made from metal, the automotive industry is an opportunity area for any engineering plastic company today, Jain said. In order to capitalise on the trend's potential in India, the company set-up a Greenfield plant in 2009, in Ranjangaon. In 2011, the company set-up a local R&D department, which aimed at increasing the metal to plastic conversion from a local point of view, he added.
Jain also told us that many engineering plastic companies bring a wealth of application engineering knowledge to local markets but do not experiment much with material or plastic grades for every region. DSM, however, took a different approach and started doing product engineering in addition to application engineering. One such product is a new grade of plastic, which was developed keeping in mind the harsh sunlight in India and the tendency of plastic parts such as door handles to lose colour over a period of time. The new product provides better protection against harsh sunlight and is now receiving interest from outside India as well. Going ahead, the focus for DSM engineering will be local-for-local, Jain added.
Talking of the increase in the usage of plastic in various areas of a vehicle, we were told that the adoption is driven primarily by legislation. As emission norms and safety standards become stringent, plastic adoption will become popular owing to its lighter weight, when compared with steel or even aluminium.
Another area, where Jain sees plastics establishing a foothold, is friction reduction. High-end plastics in this area can today contribute by lowering friction even at engine operating temperature. In some cases plastic can even offer better dampening than conventional materials, Jain said. Citing an example, he told us about the plastic grades developed to reduce the weight of electric power steering (EPS) systems. The plastic replacing metal in the EPS also lowers noise & vibration emissions, while improving the reliability. Since the material used instead of aluminium eliminates the need of secondary processing, cost too has been reduced for the system along with an improvement of up to five times for the tooling life.
Owing to these technical necessities and the ability of engineering plastics to deliver well on all these fronts, his outlook is extremely positive.
Explaining how safety legislations could help plastic content grow in a car, Jain said that technologies such as airbags and ABS would need to become mandatory first. The airbag system itself uses a significant amount of plastic for the airbag covers and canisters. ABS ECU too sits in a plastic housing along with connectors and other electronic parts made from the same material.
Consumer demand too would start driving demand for plastics in the coming years, he said. The area in discussion is connectivity, which is increasingly being demanded by buyers across car segments. This would directly translate into higher use of electronics, and in turn plastics. Jain also mentioned that while plastic content is going up in mass-cars, there are products that are widely considered as plastics but aren't engineering plastics actually. Such products would be the dashboard, which is made from materials that are more of commodity plastics. Engineering plastics are typically those which have a melting point of more than 200° C among many other unique properties.
The opportunities are huge, because when the plastic content in Indian cars is compared to similar vehicles globally, "we're not even half the way yet", he said. That said he made it clear that it would be unfair to expect reaching global levels in future since our market preferences are different. In India, hatchbacks continue to be the most popular choice, while in China too sedans are more popular. This naturally lowers the scope for electronics and plastics. Local engineering and developing India-specific products is what Jain believes will help DSM be a strong player in the domain of engineering plastics, Jain concluded.
Text: Arpit Mahendra