Can India turn a base for hi-tech plastics?

The PlastIndia 2012 exhibition held last fortnight at New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan was quite an eye-opener.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 15 Feb 2012 Views icon101284 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
They were all wooing the automotive industry in India – OEMs and component makers alike – to assist automakers in their quest to develop lighter, more energy efficient vehicles. The mantra to achieve improved fuel efficiency is reduced mass and increasingly OEMs are viewing reinforced plastics or composite materials in a more positive light, more in terms of their lightweighting benefits rather than the standard costs versus conventional steel and aluminium.

Teijin talks lightweight

Standing extremely lightweight at around 437kg in comparison to a normal 1,500kg car and etching its first appearance in India was Teijin Group’s concept car PU_PA. Leveraging lightweight materials like Tenax carbon fibre, Panlite polycarbonate resin and Biofront highly heat-resistant bioplastic, it attracted eyeballs. As did Hyundai Motor Company’s i-flow developed in collaboration with thermoplastics supplier BASF.

The PU_PA concept car was developed in-house by global supplier of high-performance fibres and polymers, Teijin of Japan. It was an attempt to display the effectiveness of new-generation fibres in terms of replacing steel and other metal parts in a car while still retaining the same strength.

Today, with the Indian automotive industry pitching for lightweight vehicles in the face of stricter emission norms, and the next level of Bharat Stage V and VI to follow in the years to come, OE manufacturers are looking at making vehicles lighter. As a result, the plastic content is increasingly replacing steel in vehicles because the density of plastic is one-seventh of that of steel. Moreover, fuel efficiency rises sharply with lightweighting of parts and plastic is also recyclable, promoting green mobility.

This necessitates trimming flab in the components at the design stage itself which could offset reduction of material thickness, use of lesser number of parts or different grades of materials. Thermoplastics suppliers are therefore finding huge growth potential in the Indian automotive market for newer and more advanced grades of thermoplastics.

For instance, the Tenax carbon fibre lends strength and high electrical properties to car parts, the Panlite polycarbonate resin cuts weight and is useful for making the automotive roof system, door handles, interior parts, body parts as well as other car applications like LED lamps, flame-retardant sheets, surface-hardened sheets and optical lens. Biofront bioplastic has a much higher melting point than conventional bioplastics. It also allows hydrolytic stability and semi-crystallisation can be achieved in just 20–25 percent of the time required by conventional bioplastics. Teijin’s Twaron and Technora para-aramid fibres also provide wear resistance and low abrasiveness in thermoplastic components.

Aramid fibre, though similar in cost to carbon fibre, is already being used in India for manufacturing brake pads, bullet-proof vests, brake linings, rubber and car hoses, optical fibre cables and composites. These replace asbestos and, according to Takaya Miyano, managing director of Teijin India, is sold as yarn and converted into pulp for use in brake pads by component manufacturers.

On the other hand, thermoplastics including mineral and glass reinforced thermoplastic compounds of polypropylene contain lightweight properties enabling the component to maintain the same strength as a metal part. Moreover, instead of glass fibres, carbon fibres can also be used to reinforce thermoplastics for electrical and electronic applications.

In Germany, BMW and Volkswagen are believed to be in a tussle to acquire the rights of the largest supplier of carbon fibre. BMW has already announced plans to build lightweight carbon fibre cars and VW is believed to be equally keen to gain access to the extremely lightweight material.

Carbon fibre is about 50 percent lighter than glass fibre and reinforced thermoplastics and is commonly used in Formula 1 racing cars or for space shuttles in nuclear programmes. In terms of cost, carbon fibre is similarly priced as aramid fibre while glass fibre is much lower in price. For instance, if glass fibre costs around Rs 90 to Rs 100 per kg, carbon fibre would be in the range of Rs 800 to Rs 900 per kg. But glass fibre can replace carbon fibre in many applications because of similar properties albeit in some cases where incredible strength is required, glass fibre cannot be a match for it. However, the question mark remains over the viability of carbon fibre reinforced thermoplastic compounds for series production of automobiles as it is demand-driven.

Will there be a CFRP revolution in India?

Nirmal B Thakkar, chairman of Tipco Industries, a leading manufacturer of specialty thermoplastic materials, visualises another automotive revolution for increasing the popularity of carbon fibre reinforced thermoplastics in Indian cars. He feels that while India graduated from two main car models – the Fiat and Ambassador – over a 25-year time frame to the current level of over 70 models, the next shift to a higher technology involving use of carbon fibre reinforcements may be faster in coming.

This switch will be accelerated by better road infrastructure that would attract faster cars, increasing the focus on vehicle safety. This would spearhead growth of carbon fibre reinforcements in compounding to make vehicles lighter and safer.

Most specialty thermoplastic manufacturers feel that it will take another five to 10 years before carbon fibre reinforcements will arrive in India as it is still in a nascent stage globally inspite of enhanced properties. Till then glass fibre reinforcements will continue their reign, being more cost effective and heat resistant, finding increased applications in high-temperature locations like under the hood and near the engine.

However, Tipco Industries, which enabled Maruti Suzuki in the 1980s to make the transition from imported plastic components to localised ones for the Maruti 800, the Omni van and the three-box Maruti 1000 car, is in the process of taking trials for carbon fibre reinforcements.

The supplier is familiarising itself with carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) and a project on the material is at the drawing board stage at its R&D laboratory in Gujarat. Procuring small amounts of carbon fibre from a trader as bulk quantities are not required, Tipco is developing samples for different applications.

However, Tipco feels the transition from glass fibre to carbon fibre will be gradual and in stages. At present, OEs have not shown much interest in the material as it has still not become a critical need for India. Further, the necessary infrastructure like processing units and machinery, trained manpower, experienced moulders and importantly, design expertise required for carbon fibre reinforcements is insufficient. And, being an expensive product, it will find limited use in critical operations such as under- the-hood applications.

“Cars do not need a full carbon fibre dashboard or other components. Small volumes of carbon fibre reinforcements can be utilised for heat resistant parts for the car engine after being mixed with polymers and other ingredients,” says Aniruddha Sarin, executive director (marketing) of Tipco Industries. Most thermoplastic suppliers are keen to replace metals, notably steel or aluminium in the automotive sector. This is possible by leveraging plastic polymers after compounding it with glass fibre, either long or short, along with a number of other ingredients to give it strength, besides the fuel efficiency achieved by lightweighting components. While a combination of plastic and aluminium parts are popular today in automobiles, suppliers are also experimenting with the feasibility of roping in all-plastic parts.

For instance, Hyundai through its i-flow concept has displayed its keenness to look at future cars and ways to reduce weight and CO2 output in them. Hence, its development of the i-flow to prove that several of these applications are workable. In fact, Hyundai was the first OE to produce a plastic air intake manifold using BASF's Ultramid product, says Andy Postlethwaite, senior vice-president, engineering plastics, RBU Engineering Plastics Asia Pacific, BASF South East Asia Pte Ltd.

BASF has contributed 25 solutions to the i-flow including energy harvesting systems like flexible solar panel roofing and a thermo-electric generator, energy conserving systems like engine encapsulation and weight saving materials for lightweight construction. This facilitates in cutting the car’s CO2 output to 85g/m while most cars are at about 150g/km, and fuel consumption to three litres per 100km. The i-flow’s seats and centre console were developed along with BASF which used advanced stress analysis and the seat features Ultramid Balance, a polyamide that constitutes upto 60 percent renewable raw materials.

On short trips, and in city traffic, engines are slow to reach the optimum operating temperature or cool down quickly. To offset this, BASF has developed thermal engine encapsulation using a polyurethane rigid foam insulation system.

This ensures that the engine reaches optimum operating temperature more quickly and prevents it from cooling down too quickly when the engine is stopped. Where a non-insulated engine would take three hours to drop to 40deg C, the i-flow stays above that for 14 hours. This translates into fuel savings and emissions reduction of five percent during summer and upto nine percent in winter.

BASF has also suggested an innovative idea of developing plastic wheels for Daimler’s ‘smart for vision’ concept car. The wheels have passed the requisite requirements of Daimler. Now BASF plans to work on them for future Daimler models in which these fitments can be suited. But the testing of the plastic wheels will take several years.

“We provide the material, the simulation software solution, developed and crash tested on computer to Daimler. The real physical testing of the moulded part is taken by the OE. Testing will be more rigorous than normal,” confirms Postlethwaite while stating that plastic wheels are safe. He visualises opportunities of using all-plastic wheels reinforced with long glass fibres of 12 inches so that the wheel is very strong and able to absorb the crash impact, even if transferred to small cars in India. However, this initiative is still more years in the coming.

In terms of cost effectiveness, industry captains say that metal is more expensive, marketed at Rs 35 per kg for mild steel that cannot be used in a car, while stainless steel is priced at Rs 150 per kg. Today, good plastics are priced below Rs 100 per kg, and are lower in terms of energy cost in shaping compared to steel. Hence, in the long run they are more cost effective, consistent, easier to maintain and durable.

Cost matters

But are different grades of plastic polymers all that cost effective? Christof Krogmann, the Asia-Pacific Head for Business Unit – Semi Crystalline Products of Lanxess, is of the opinion that it is not so much a question of cost as about engineering capability in building plastic parts. Economies of scale through backward integration once volumes pick up will help rein in costs in the long term.

For Lanxess, India offers a significant growth potential for developing advanced technologies along with the OE related to under the hood, hybrid front end and other applications. Lanxess is not engaged in carbon fibre applications.

According to him, the volume of total plastics in use in an Indian car today hovers around 70kg compared to 130 to 150kg in China and USA respectively while in Europe it is still higher at over 200kg. With India targeting a 10 million car market by 2020, the growth opportunity for thermoplastic suppliers is also immense. But he cautions that other regions will not stand still either.

LyondellBasell, on the other hand, is not a producer of carbon fibre but buys it for compounding functions. It has a big R&D centre in Europe and North America but Dr Erik Licht, global marketing manager, Basell Deutschland GmbH, LyondellBasell, says that the company has not found the carbon fibre to give a higher advantage compared to polypropylene compounds. “Carbon fibre reinforcements should hold a cost and technological advantage. We are still evaluating the performance and then will consider the cost part. Maybe, carbon fibre reinforcements can be applicated in India some years from now,” he adds.

Moreover, he is doubtful about its success in India as the likes of BMW and Volkswagen are already involved in an expensive fight over the business in Germany. “They have very high costs and very high scrap rates. Hence it is not a very good technology for the auto industry that requires cheap parts. If the industry has low scrap rates, a good turnover and reasonable costs then carbon fibre reinforcements may be a success but we have to wait and see,” says Licht.

LyondellBasell uses its Softell polypropylene compounds (its next-generation advanced polyolefins) that contain performance and processing characteristics and can be used in demanding technical applications. It also uses foaming technology to save weight and to be cost effective while leveraging its compounds that can withstand crash and weathering. LyondellBasell provides under-the-hood applications, materials for instrument panels, dashboards, upper door trims and arm rests. These parts have been used in Audi and GM cars in Europe and the company has a variety of polypropylene compounds for the Indian market.Overall,while thermoplastic suppliers are keen to provide their polypropylene solutions in India, they are not banking on low costs to drive their growth. Rather, they are talking about the ensuing benefits from use of their raw materials to the end user. OEs will benefit from reduction of machining processes for plastic and computer aided designs that will facilitate easier design change. In comparison, changes cannot be incorporated easily in metal components and a new part has to be remade, adding to costs. Also, the weight saving and fuel economy benefits are too good to ignore.

Yes, the vehicle user may have to pay a higher price for the end product due to the advanced quality of materials used but in the long term it will save energy costs. With the world headed that way, India is bound to be there too.

Shobha Mathur
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