BASF’s senior VP, Performance Materials, Engineering Plastics & PU Solutions Asia Pacific, reveals the latest in its portfolio in an email interview with Shobha Mathur.
What are the recent developments at BASF in terms of lightweight products and materials?
BASF has successfully managed to advance from conventional materials and technologies in the research of lightweight material. It recently rolled out Ultramid Endure polyamide which possesses higher stiffness and heat aging resistance. This makes metal replacement possible for components close to the engine, particularly in the charge air system of turbocharged engines. Ultramid Structure polyamide, on the other hand, composed of long glass-fibre-reinforced materials, overcomes the weakness of conventional short glass-fibre-reinforced engineering plastics in impact resistance, creep resistance, fatigue resistance and allows for metal replacement in the car body and chassis, like the wheels, a possibility. Some recent applications include the first plastic engine support for the six-cylinder diesel engine used in the new Mercedes-Benz GL-class. Compared to the previous aluminium support, the plastic part offers improved acoustical properties, better thermal insulating characteristics and a definite weight advantage, while being able to withstand the same load. The part, which supports the engine with the aid of the engine mounts, is moulded from Ultramid A3WG10 CR, a highly reinforced specialty polyamide from BASF that has been optimised for high mechanical loads. Also, the front end carrier in the new Volkswagen Golf 7 is completely made from plastic. This makes the part that owes its shape to elaborate calculations and simulations one of the world’s first front- end carriers without metal reinforcement. Replacing the previous polypropylene hybrid part with an all-plastic part required use of not only Ultramid B3WG8, a highly reinforced polyamide during development, but particularly Ultrasim, the simulation tool from BASF. The sheet steel parts that had been attached previously are now eliminated. This reduces the weight of the front end module significantly compared to that of the predecessor model, saving assembly time and costs.
How is BASF going about reducing component weight?
Many of the development tasks can only be mastered by highly innovative materials and simultaneous engineering. An accurate prediction of such component behaviour under different stress and crash situations is crucial. That is where our proprietary computer simulation technology Ultrasim is key as it makes it possible to design engineering plastics that were formerly confined exclusively to metals. Ultrasim enables optimised use of plastics as it helps to simulate the part behaviour as well as to determine the best way to design the part faster and at a lower cost. This is because many different design variants can be investigated, optimum amount of material determined and processing weak spots can be identified and rectified before production even commences. With its capabilities, Ultrasim reduces the complexity of the development process. This pays-off for both parties as costs for changing technology concepts or materials are being reduced right from the beginning. Less prototyping is therefore needed. Thanks to the combination of high-performance engineering plastics with optimised simulation methods such as Ultrasim, BASF has succeeded in developing several complex high load and safety components like oil pans, stabilisers, engine mounts and structures that protect pedestrians. Materials that have been introduced with tailor-made solutions include short glass fibre reinforced thermoplastics, long glass fibre reinforced thermoplastics, polymer composites, which includes thermoplastics and RIM reinforced by continuous glass fibers (UD tapes, laminates).
Which area offers the maximum scope for reducing component weight?
There are many areas. BASF has pioneered several lightweight solutions for the automotive industry. For example, our engineering plastics can be used in seat frames in order to substitute steel. In the chassis, plastic body panels and plastic inserts in structural parts can reduce weight. When we put together all our know-how for weight savings in the interior, exterior and powertrain areas — we estimate all in all a potential weight saving of about 50kg per car. This translates to a CO2 emission reduction of 5g/km. In the context of electric cars, reducing the battery weight (200-300kg) would be a significant achievement. Substituting battery housings made of stamped steel or aluminium with engineering plastics can reduce the weight of the battery by about 40 percent.There are many more opportunities for making a car even lighter (with high- performing plastics). We see a lot of opportunity for a further significant weight reduction, reducing fuel consumption by another 10 percent or so in the next decade.
How do you bring innovative lightweighting ideas to market?
Reducing vehicle weight is very high on the agenda of all OEMs. BASF is at the forefront of this development. We are the No.1 for lightweight plastic solutions. We can bring such innovations to the market by partnering with customers and OEMs at an early phase of design. By working directly with OEMs and Tier suppliers, we can better understand needs and wishes. And designers can see what materials and solutions we are thinking about and testing in our R&D centres. BASF’s technical support includes all stages of the development process from concept to design including prototyping and testing of finished parts. For example, the air intake manifold was a joint development between Toyota 2010 Prius and BASF. Where the previous Prius had an air intake manifold made from metal, BASF helped Toyota to reduce the weight of the hybrid powertrain for the 2010 Prius. The smart forvision is the result of a close cooperation between Daimler engineers, designers and BASF’s R&D teams.
How do you perceive the challenges in adopting new technologies and materials?
The challenge in lightweight construction solution for our customers is in balancing performance and system costs. For BASF, this means that we have to focus more on the strengths that have made us a global premium partner to all car manufacturers. As such, support in lowering the overall process cost (less energy consumption, faster processes), while ensuring better quality is a key need. Also, support in transplant activities (off-shoring of production), especially Japanese and Korean OEMs to China, India, ASEAN, and Western customers to China and India.
Are high-performance engineering plastics the cost-effective answer to metal?
This is dependent on several factors; for instance, the part design and metal used. If the parts are optimised with Ultrasim, it could be up to 50 percent lighter and more cost effective. The production number – typically the higher the production numbers, the lower the cost for injection moulding versus aluminium die-casting. To replace a steel part strongly depends on the production steps of the steel part – does it need post operations like welding or corrosion protection? If it is a simple stamped part, it is hard to show cost advantages with plastics. Therefore, we are capitalising the design freedom of plastic to integrate as many parts and functions as possible to save assembly costs. The key factor is that plastic content has increased in cars over the years and continues to do so because it has many advantages besides weight reduction. With engineering plastics, multiple parts can be moulded to create complex shapes that meet both safety and design requirements. Aside from its multifaceted shaping and design possibilities, it is also easy and reliable to process. Today, smaller, niche vehicles are increasingly using molded plastic parts.
How much does BASF spend in lightweighting R&D?
In 2012, we invested about 200 million Euro on R&D for automotive, in the areas of weight reduction, design, safety, emission reduction, heat management, new power trains, appearance and haptics. In the area of weight reduction, we are now entering the area of the chassis. Since October last year, we have also ramped up our R&D capabilities innovating in Asia for Asia and the world at our Innovation Campus in Shanghai – complementing our global R&D competencies.
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