Automatic windshield wipers first appeared on cars in the US in 1916 and then on 'luxury' cars in Europe in 1924. Since then, as with all other major components of the car, the leading manufacturers have progressively sought to develop windshield wiping equipment. Matthew Beecham reviews the wiper system market.

Making a clean sweep

The flat wiper blade is the main trend in wiper blade design.  The market drivers are product quality, comfort and aesthetics, say manufacturers. While European wiper makers refer to 'flat blades', American manufacturers talk of 'beam blades'.  According to Bosch, the contact pressure over the wiper blade element is no longer distributed by the claws of the wiper bracket, but by two preshaped spring strips specially adapted to the shape of the windshield.  They press the wiper element lip and increase wipe quality.  In addition, says Bosch, the elimination of the bracket system means that there is no linkage wear, the overall height of the wiper system is substantially reduced, the weight is lower and the wiper is quieter.

"Beam blades wear out at about the same rate as conventional blades," said James Croston, director of marketing for Trico Products. "However, given that beam blades feature an infinite number of pressure points then during the life of that blade the motorist will get a superior wipe.  Typically what happens with normal blades is that the blade pressure on the windshield is greatest at the points at which the six or eight claws are located.  So when the blade wears out and loses its pressure then that is where the motorist will start to suffer streaking wiper blades, resulting in poor visibility and increased wiper noise."

While demand for flat blades has grown at a phenomenal rate over the past decade, manufacturers see no reason why demand shouldn't continue to grow. Croston told us: "As an Original Equipment supplier, you cannot quote on a new vehicle programme without quoting a beam blade. Trico is working on 2011 and 2012 cars and the OEMs as part of their specifications are requiring beam blades for pretty much every vehicle.  So [beam blades] is definitely a trend that is not going away. In Europe, about 80% or higher of all the new vehicles that are coming out have beam blades and in the US it was 35 - 36% in 2007 and we expect that it will be close to 50% of vehicles in 2008."

Flat blades are also appearing on the rear window, too.  "There are several manufacturers that put beam blades on the rear of vehicles but it is probably no more than half a dozen vehicle models in the US," said Croston.  "Generally speaking, most vehicles that have rear wiper blades tend to be SUVs.  At the 2007 Detroit auto show, 44% of vehicles had rear wiper blades on them.  The other interesting thing about the rear wiper - and this is a lot more advanced in Europe than it is in the US - of the 44% that had rear wiper blades, 61% have unique plastic integral blades and arms. In other words, 27% of all the vehicles out in the US have those unique plastic integral arms based on the 2007 Detroit auto show.  But in Europe, it is probably 50 - 60%."

Most newly registered cars in Europe are equipped with wiper blade spoilers on both sides. Flat blades have spoilers integrated into their design. In North America although wiper blade spoilers on conventional blades on the driver side is common, spoilers on both sides is less popular. This may have more to do with the fact that Europeans tend to drive at higher speeds than Americans.

While the European automakers have long since adopted flat blades, the North American market is catching-up. "The beam blade is very popular," said James Croston, marketing manager for Trico Products.  "All the major automotive retailers in the US are now stocking at least one brand." The Japanese market, however, has yet to take-off. Croston added: "Some of the wiper manufacturers supplying Japanese cars are slowly starting to supply the beam blades but the market is still small.  For instance, Toyota have about one vehicle model fitted with beam blades in their entire range."

As the height and width of windshields increase, the length of a driver-side wiper becomes longer than the passenger-side blade to provide a wider view for the driver. "Beam blades tend to contour to the shape of the windshield a lot better than conventional blades," said Croston.  "That is because beam blades have fewer parts."

"It is true that wipers are becoming longer and longer," said Wim Vercauteren, marketing director, Services Products, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Federal Mogul Corp.  "This is creating a big issue mostly in the development of flat blade because the metal [conventional] blade has six to eight points of pressure on the wiper whereas the flat blade only has one point of pressure which is where the connector is located.  So there it is pushed against the windscreen.  So it is asking quite a lot of technology to make sure that the metal in the flat blade has the correct curvature.    We are currently testing for the entire car parc to see if we can reduce the number of curvatures and determine the wiping quality, i.e. there are different zones on the windscreen so let's say that the wiping quality has to be 100% in front of the driver but in the top right hand side of the windscreen of a left-hand drive car then maybe you can live with a 90 - 95% vision quality.  So all that testing is now ongoing in order to look at the number of SKUs and curvatures for the same wiper length."

A safety critical component

In theory, the wiper blade is a service replacement item. However, the truth is that vehicle owners often wait until the product is disintegrating before replacing it. This is despite the fact that this is, in reality, a safety-critical item with impaired performance leading to a hazardous reduction in visibility.

"In Western Europe, we estimate that motorists replace their blades once a year or it might even be once every second year, depending on the country," added Vercauteren. "But in Eastern Europe, Nordic countries and Russia, drivers replace their wiper blades more frequently."

The average wiper blade wipes the windshield over 1m times in a year, and travels 800 miles in this time. Temperature extremes, heavy precipitation and repetitive friction on the windshield have a damaging effect on wiper blade performance over time. A blade's natural rubber provides the most flexible and resilient edge for wiping across glass, but it eventually dries out and deteriorates. Heat can warp the rubber and cold can make it brittle. Sunlight, ozone and road spray can also have significant deterioration effects. 

Historically, replacing wiper blades has not only been difficult to remember, it's also been difficult to do.  Research indicates that 60% of the drivers who do not install their own wiper blades cite the confusing assortment of adaptors that accompany most replacement blades as the reason.  Simply working out how to remove the old blade can be a trying experience.  In many cases, consumers become frustrated and use force to pry off the blade, thereby damaging the hardware.  Determining which adaptor to use and struggling with complicated instructions are obstacles that often lead drivers to neglect replacing wiper blades.
Cutting edge wiper blade initiatives

While drivers don't always replace their blades as often as they perhaps should, wiper makers have launched a number of initiatives to help them.   "Although we believe that motorists should replace their wiper blades once a year, French drivers typically change their blades once every three years," said David Michaux, business line manager for wipers, Valeo Service.  "So there is a huge opportunity to grow the market by educating the motorist about the dangers of worn out wiper blades. We have, therefore, launched two incentives.  Valeo invented the wiper wear indicator which gradually changes colour thereby alerting drivers to change their blades. Our second initiative is centered on training garage staff to get into the habit of checking their customer's wiper blades for wear and then changing them as appropriate. Both initiatives are helping us increase the size of the market."

Over the past few years, Trico Products has launched a number of initiatives aimed at reminding motorists to replace their wiper blades more frequently. For example, Trico Products uses the bi-annual clock changing as a timely cue to motorists to change their blades under the mantra: 'change you clocks, change your wiper blades.' Trico Products believes that many drivers do not realise the abuse that their wiper blades endure.  Over time, says the company, temperature extremes, heavy precipitation and repetitive friction on the windshield have a damaging effect on wiper blade performance.  While the natural rubber from which blades are made provides the most flexible and resilient edge for wiping across glass, it eventually dries out and deteriorates.  The rubber can become warped by heat or made brittle by cold. Also contributing to the rubber's deterioration are the effects of sunlight, ozone and road spray.

For its part, Champion's range of wipers for the aftermarket features a replacement reminder indicator which begins to react when it is exposed to rain.  Over the course of about a year, a water soluble black 'ink' coating dissolves to expose a white line on the rubber refill, serving as a reminder to the driver that the wiper blades should be checked and replaced if required.  The replacement reminder indicator provides a visible safety message from both inside and outside of the car.

It is estimated that around 100 million wiper blades are sold in the EU independent aftermarket each year. Federal Mogul says that as the vehicle parc is forecast to increase by 3.4% by 2010, it is likely that the wiper market will also continue to grow.  The company believes that such growth could be significantly accelerated if repairers take a more proactive stance to replacement. Federal Mogul says that the current replacement rate for wipers is 53% (the replacement rate is given as a percentage of vehicles where one or more blades are replaced in the last 12 months.)

Federal Mogul also reckons that the introduction of more vehicle specific part numbers is creating a minor part number explosion.  The market is also experiencing steadily increasing unit prices with the growth of flat blades, says Federal Mogul.  The company reports that the sum of these trends is a growing profit opportunity throughout the distribution chain.

Although flat blades were launched on the European market during the mid-1990s, their presence on the aftermarket is still relatively small.  Michaux added: "Flat blades were introduced about ten years ago on certain vehicles but on the aftermarket it is not yet here.  Today, fat blades appear on 13 - 15% of the [European] car parc.  So it will be another five years before flat blades become a major part of the European wiper blade aftermarket."

Refill blades are also sold in the aftermarket, which is simply the rubber wiping element. Refills are typically priced at half the cost of a blade. Most motorists, however, replace the entire blade as it is quicker and easier to install.

Meanwhile, US-based supplier Microheat claims to have a winning product with its system (dubbed HotShot) that heats windshield-washer fluid and controls wipers to more effectively clean grease, dead insects and frost from the glass. Microheat was founded in 1997 and became a tier one supplier to the automotive industry in 2002. The company believes HotShot will become standard equipment on all cars soon, and it claims to have other products in the pipeline. In research conducted by J D Power & Associates, 69% of drivers surveyed expressed interest in having a system like HotShot on their next vehicle. They ranked it higher than features currently in series production such as satellite radio, navigation and rear seat entertainment systems. 

"Microheat is targeting the OEM market and that is going exceptionally well," said Gary Pilibosian, chief executive officer of Microheat.  "General Motors continues adding HotShot to new platforms, most recently the Cadillac CTS, the 2008 Motor Trend Car of the Year. The activity with Toyota and another OEM in Asia is exciting."   Why has it taken so long for automakers to get excited about it?  "We feel enthused by the rapid adaptation by automakers. Introducing a new product generally involves a long, thorough process that includes testing and packaging phases and in the best case takes two years. With HotShot, once GM integrated the system on its Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS, it quickly expanded the feature to many other platforms within a year."