As lightweighting continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing automakers today, manufacturers are increasingly turning to composite materials for weight savings, functionality and sustainability.
Some were skeptical that composite parts could compete with parts made of traditional materials, such as steel and aluminum, especially for structural automotive applications. Yet, new lightweight composite solutions are changing the game, resulting in increased confidence and applications in the automotive industry.
Increase weight savings with automotive fiber-reinforced composites
Fiber-reinforced composites, made with carbon fiber, glass or even natural fibers, combine the inherent strength of the fiber with the durability and tunability of the plastic matrix. The use of lightweight composite materials typically results in 20 to 50 percent weight savings. It also improves strength-to-weight ratio and increases part design freedom and material efficiency.
BASF has partnered with automakers and tier 1 suppliers to demonstrate that composites can compete, both in interior applications and in structural exterior applications.
One example of this is the carbon fiber composite grille opening reinforcement on the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang. Magna and BASF partnered with Ford to create this structural part that is 24 percent lighter than the prior plastic-metal hybrid. The team of engineers also emphasized the innovative nature of the carbon fiber car part by molding the words ‘carbon fiber composite’ into the visible front end.
Another example is the world’s first roof frame made entirely of natural fibers that BASF developed in partnership with IAC for the Mercedes-Benz E-class. BASF’s Acrodur® – a water-based, low-emission binder – strengthens the natural fibers creating a sustainable, stable and lightweight solution for car roof frames.
BASF recently expanded its lightweight natural composite offerings with CONTOURA™, a solution that combines its Acrodur resin with natural, recycled or synthetic fibers to produce a pre-preg composite. CONTOURA is well-suited for compression molding to create flat automotive parts such as door panels, underbody shields, roof components and instrument panels.
“Lightweighting continues to be one of the biggest trends contributing to the growth of composites in the automotive industry,” said Henning Karbstein, Manager New Business Development & Idea Management, BASF Dispersions & Resins. “As the pressure to lightweight increases, solutions like Acrodur and CONTOURA enable weight reduction, and improved performance and strength while remaining environmentally aware.”
A challenge impeding increased adoption of composites is a lack of confidence in part performance compared to parts made of traditional materials. BASF overcame this by developing a proprietary performance prediction technology, ULTRASIM®, which can routinely provide 90 to 95 percent accuracy when characterizing composite materials and their expected performance. The tool helps designers and engineers study the structural performance of static loads and impact (crash) loads, vibration and acoustic response and fatigue and creep performance.
To further drive composite research and adoption forward, BASF recently opened a customer innovation center in Wyandotte, Mich. with a world-class, production scale development lab.
This facility enables collaborative development for applications using spray polyurethane in a process called Spray Transfer Molding (STM). One such application is the semi-structural honeycomb composite. Sheets of corrugated paper made to resemble a honeycomb are sandwiched between mats of reinforced fibers, sprayed with BASF’s polyurethane and molded into shape. This component is commonly used in load floors for SUV cargo areas and trunk liners for its weight-saving capabilities.
BASF’s new facility allows co-development of STM composites from load floors to more advanced structural applications. The fully automated work cell features a large handling robot, state-of-the-art chemical mixing equipment, fiber chopping and a 300-ton hydraulic press that is capable of handling customers’ full-sized production tools. The work cell is designed to scale from initial ideation and experiments to actual production components.
Watch the process in action below: