Pick’n’mix: the evolution of automotive materials

Those OEMs that master the art of the efficient manufacturing material mix will enjoy a huge competitive advantage in the automotive industry of the future, writes Indraneel Bardhan of EOS Intelligence

The increasing demand for fuel efficient, lighter, and safer vehicles is re-shaping the global automotive industry landscape. Significant pressure from regulators and customers is driving vehicle manufacturers to focus on design efficiencies using advanced technologies and materials. These factors have made vehicle material composition a vital part of every OEM’s overall manufacturing strategy.

Evolution of material composition over the last three decades

The ongoing evaluation of material performance in the automotive industry, as well as continuous enhancements in the material composition of vehicles have always been on the agenda for OEMs as vehicle weight has direct implications on driving dynamics and fuel consumption.

Significant pressure from regulators and customers is driving OEMs to focus on design efficiencies using advanced technologies and materials. These factors have made vehicle material composition a vital part of every OEM’s overall manufacturing strategy

Due to changing industry dynamics, OEMs face growing pressure to develop lightweight vehicles that ensure lower environmental impact and provide safety and desired performance. This has led the material composition of passenger vehicles to evolve constantly over the past three decades.

IB charts-1

In recent years, the increased regulatory and user pressure on vehicle manufacturers and materials suppliers to discover better and lighter materials has resulted in an increased use of plastics, with a corresponding reduced role for metals in vehicle manufacturing (though metals are expected to still account for more than half (55%) of the material composition of a vehicle in 2020).

Regulatory Reforms

IB charts -2Stringent CO2 reforms such as corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) in the USA as well as EU CO2 emission targets for 2021 are forcing OEMs to make their vehicles more energy efficient.

These reforms have fuelled R&D efforts as well as investments in vehicle lightweighting. According to Ducker Worldwide, a US-based research and consulting firm, by 2025, an average vehicle in the USA will have to reduce approximately 181kg of its total weight to achieve an average fuel economy that enables passenger vehicles to drive at least 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel. Clearly, as lightweight materials are a significant factor in meeting these rigorous regulations, OEMs are re-thinking their vehicle material composition. In the coming years, one can expect the material composition to evolve further as these compliance deadlines approach nearer and OEMs begin to feel the pressure of monetary penalties for non-compliance. For example, in Europe, OEMs will have to pay at least €95 for every gram of CO2 above the set limit (95g) multiplied by total cars sold in 2020. This could translate to approximately €1bn for Volkswagen and €300m for Hyundai in penalties as per estimates by PA Consulting.


New market entrants

The entry of new players, such as Tesla and the Silicon Valley 3D printing start-up Divergent Microfactories, is transforming traditional vehicle manufacturing processes and technologies. By leveraging new materials and technologies, these companies have developed new vehicle models that offer better design and performance. This is encouraging traditional players in the industry to learn and adapt their designs and material composition choices in upcoming vehicle models to help them to achieve better design and fuel efficiencies.

Consumer demands and expectations

Over the years, consumers’ demands with regard to their cars have changed considerably, with expectations of improved fuel economy, safety and driving experience through technology and functionality enhancements. These factors have driven the R&D, design, and material teams in the industry to innovate to satisfy evolving consumer demands. The tech-savvy consumers of ‘Generation Z’ (born post-1995) and the generations after ‘Z’ are sure to be more demanding, and one can expect the passenger vehicles to continue on the innovation path; this is likely to also see more advanced grades of plastics and composites used in the construction of these vehicles.
Technology advancements

Improvements in materials as well as production technologies in the automotive sector have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. According to ArcelorMittal, a multinational steel manufacturing corporation, only five grades of steel were available to the automotive industry in 1960, while today, the industry has more than 175 grades of steel at its disposal for design optimisation. The current grades of steel, such as advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) and ultra high-strength steel (UHSS) are much stronger, lighter, and processing-friendly for various vehicle manufacturing applications.

The emergence of 3D printing, new design, testing, and processing tools is transforming automobile engineering. By leveraging technology and advanced manufacturing techniques, along with the strategic use of various materials, automotive engineers today are designing body-in-white (BIW) structures that are far lighter than those of the 1990s.

Current trends in material composition

There is no single approach to material composition that applies across each passenger vehicle segment. In fact, material composition choices vary by region, OEM, vehicle type, manufacturing volumes, and target customer segment. For example, a pick-up truck in the USA uses considerably more aluminium than a similar truck in Europe (138kg versus 59kg), while OEMs in Europe use more aluminium in their premium car segment than their US counterparts. At present, BIW material composition of an average passenger vehicle consists of a mix of various grades of steel, aluminum, iron, and plastics, while at the upper end of the market, the use of carbon fibre and composites is more prevalent.

While there has been much talk about rapid uptake of advanced composites in vehicle production, integration of these materials creates significant challenges in design, simulation, and parts processing. Besides these challenges, the industry still lacks a good understanding of these materials at the engineering level for vehicle manufacturing applications. Current barriers range across issues in forming, joining, and corrosion, paired by high cost and limited supply of such materials. Therefore, the use of composites, especially in mainstream structural components, will remain very limited in the near future.

OEMs are also exploring nanomaterials and nanotechnology that can provide OEMs with better weight-to-strength ratios and help them with vehicle lightweighting. In addition, companies are looking into other advanced metals such as titanium and nickel-based alloys that offer high strength, low density, and superior resistance to corrosion and oxidation, thus making them ideal for use in vehicle manufacturing applications. However, these research projects are still in nascent stages, with most of them in laboratory testing phases.

Overview of current BIW material composition strategies

The future of material mix

For OEMs, any material switch requires significant investments in R&D, production processes and equipment, repair infrastructure, securing material supply, staff training, etc. Many OEMs have already made significant investments in their existing production infrastructure that supports steel. Amid the current global economic environment and cost pressures that the majority of OEMs face, they are likely to refrain from making new capital investments. Therefore, steel is expected to continue its dominance in the near future due to its cost effectiveness and design flexibilities. Furthermore, due to consumers’ limited willingness to pay for weight reduction, the uptake of advanced lightweight materials will remain limited within the mass market segments of passenger vehicles.

Steel and aluminium are expected to be the two key materials that OEMs will usefor their BIW components over the next four to five years. According to some industry players such as Jaguar Land Rover and Kaiser Aluminum, between 2016 and 2020, there will be a surge in the use of aluminium. According to Doug Richman, Vice President of Engineering and Technology, Kaiser Aluminum, aluminium will account for 14% of the average vehicle in USA and Europe (kerb weight) by 2025, up from around 10% at present. This is primarily due to the fact that advancements in steel processing have nearly reached the tipping point that limits further significant weight savings. Additionally, aluminium is the easiest switch for the vehicle production line, compared to plastics, magnesium, and carbon fibre.

The pressure to change and improve the material composition to achieve regulatory compliance will work as a double-edged sword for OEMs. On the one hand, it will create opportunities for industry players to innovate by creating new designs using advanced materials and manufacturing techniques. This can help them to outperform their peers by enhancing their product and brand value proposition. On the other hand, integrating these materials will create more manufacturing challenges for OEMs and require them to pour in more investments. This will not only lead to higher capex and opex, but it will directly impact their profit margins.

As vehicle design optimisation remains the largest leverage available to vehicle manufacturers to satisfy regulatory compliance, there is no doubt that material composition will be an important part of every OEM’s future fuel efficiency optimisation strategy. Going forward, OEMs are likely to focus on component-specific materials. They will combine materials to take the best advantage of what each has to offer. Although there are widespread complexities at present, those OEMs that master the art of the efficient manufacturing material mix will enjoy a huge competitive advantage in the automotive industry of the future.

This article appeared in the Q2 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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