The functionality and robustness of a mechanical component is as good as the materials used to manufacture it. This holds well in the automotive industry, where cost is an important criterion for the selection of materials used in manufacturing. However, it is the quality of these materials that determines the strength and life of the end-component that is being manufactured.
In earlier times, key materials used in the automotive industry – mainly iron and related metals – were abundantly available at fairly reasonable costs. This scenario has changed over the years, which is why newer materials have come into the industry. Cost has not been the only factor in directing the use of newer raw materials for production of components; changing legislation on the hazardous nature of certain materials as well as more sustainable sources have also led to the discovery and use of alternate materials.
Alternate and more sustainable materials are being used in the construction of various parts and components of vehicles, including body-in-white, chassis, body panels, tyres, wheels, interiors panels, seats and windows. While the focus of developing future materials until recently has mostly been about cost reduction of the raw material itself, a shift is being seen towards enabling newer materials to pave the way for improved total cost of ownership. This is in addition to new-age materials being more sustainable, in terms of source.
MATERIALS TO ADDRESS MEGATRENDS
It must be noted that globally, R&D initiatives are underway to create polymer compounds using innovative additives and composites. These materials are being developed to help achieve the objectives of emissions reduction, lightweighting and structural rigidity, which are the cornerstones for materials development in the automotive sector.
There has been a tendency to use newer materials in automobiles for improving the overall efficiency, thereby reducing the amount of exhaust gases let into the atmosphere. The trend of weight reduction in vehicles has a direct relation to the increased efficiency of the powertrain, which in turn, results in reduced emissions from vehicles. In line with this, there is a growing trend within the automotive sector towards lightweighting by way of replacing metal components with high-quality thermoplastics.
The implementation of newer and stricter emission norms across the globe (BS VI in India) is also being addressed by downsizing of engines by vehicle manufacturers. This calls for smaller engines in a more compact space delivering much higher power figures than before. Downsizing leads to these engines touching higher temperatures for longer periods of time, in order to be able to offer the efficiency figures they promise. The use of materials like aluminium or high-grade plastics and polymers enable the construction of modular systems that are compact in design, while also offering improved thermal management qualities than their traditional counterparts.
In addition, it must be noted that electronics content is only growing in vehicles, which leads to an increased number of control units within the vehicle. This may lead to electromagnetic interferences, which new age materials like plastics have the capability of handling better than traditional materials. Innovative plastic compounds can provide electric shielding, to protect electronic assistance systems from interference, which will help as cars become increasingly connected to the internet. Advancements in materials development will also take place in the areas of electric and hybrid vehicles, and will also include improved and mature battery technology to solve the current limitations of excessive weight and limited operating range.
Furthermore, the future will see advanced engineering thermoplastic compounds that will help improve crash performance via technologies like better pedestrian protection systems that OEMs will be able to engineer into their cars. These materials will also enhance the reliability of electronic and mechanical safety systems like airbags, even under the influence of harsh environmental conditions. There is also the role that materials play in ensuring components remain working to the best of their requirements until the lifetime of the vehicle, which is indirect but highly important nonetheless.
Newer materials are also finding newer manufacturing methodologies, be it the latest forming, moulding or extrusion technologies, or even 3D printing and additive manufacturing. These new-age manufacturing technologies enable the end-components to be manufactured efficiently, with the ability to carry complex designs in a compact architecture. Another important benefit of using the combination of new-age materials and manufacturing techniques is in enabling a high level of refinement of the component. Newer material technologies can help in creating products with low NVH levels, thereby increase refinement.
RESEARCH & TESTING
The development of new materials, or material science as it is known, is a continuous process that companies carry out to identify fresh raw materials, either due to the search for more sustainable sources or for alternate ones. Material science is required for all sectors of the automotive industry, be it manufacturers of tyres, plastic components, metal body panels or electronic systems. As long as advances keep taking place for automotive components, there will be a continuous requirement for development of newer materials that are better for the environment and aid in making components more efficient.
It is important to note that 3D printing machines are helping material science teams within organisations to design complex components and then test those using additive manufacturing technologies. 3D printing enables rapid prototyping of components and provides designers with prototypes that are close to their final products. The closeness of the texture and quality of the 3D printed prototype to the final component enable designers and engineers to see the aesthetics associated with the final product as well as provide inputs over utilising the best possible form of production method.
The use of 3D printing is gaining importance in the development of products and will also play a key role in the identification of apt raw materials for the construction of components. This additive manufacturing process then also provides inputs for leveraging appropriate manufacturing processes in the final production, in relation to the complexity in design and the robustness required. In addition to this newer technology, various traditional testing methods are being carried out continuously for development of newer and alternate raw materials.
Future materials not only have to play the role of being sourced sustainably, but also need to have the ability to be recycled for further use, thereby enabling a cleaner footprint. The aim of new materials also requires optimising components being manufactured aimed at reducing the environmental footprint, while maintaining safety, productivity and cost controls. Additionally, components are getting smarter and are witnessing increase in embedding of electronics into them, and future materials also need to be able to support such innovations. Therefore, there is a whole list of requirements from new materials in enabling improved components that are cleaner, more efficient, stronger and more intelligent.
There is a considerable amount of development work being carried out for weight reduction through various advances in steels, aluminium, magnesium, plastics and alloys. There are expectations about converging on breakthroughs in the combination of these materials with lighter materials used in space applications, and this is already being implemented by some premier OEMs. These new-age materials will be the biggest enablers in reducing weight, improving structural longevity and fuel economy, and creating more space. Further, the more urgent implementation is to improve the performance and reliability of systems and components without compromising on customer value. The final verdict is that future materials have a bigger role to play in ensuring components perform without snags, while also enabling enhanced safety, comfort and savings.
(With inputs from DSM Engineering Plastics, Lanxess, BASF, Michelin, Stratasys)
TEXT: Naveen Arul