SABIC, the chemicals specialist based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has announced new technology for producing lightweight, cost-effective and recyclable vehicle panels using its UDMAX tape, a unidirectional, fibre-reinforced thermoplastic composite.

The technology is designed to replace traditional panels made of metal and thermoset materials for interior and exterior automotive applications. It will make its debut in the bulkhead of a yet to be named light commercial vehicle (LCV) "produced in large scale for the global automotive market".

The bulkhead was developed through an international collaboration involving SABIC, RLE International, an engineering services provider based in the United Kingdom, AMA Composites, an Italian toolmaker, and Setex Textil, a weaver based in Germany.

It's claimed vehicle panels made this way combine strength and impact resistance with light weight, which can result in mass reduction of interior panels of up to 35% in comparison to metal parts.

In case of exterior panels, the composite material can help reduce mass up to 50%. They are produced using a one-shot process of lamination and low-pressure moulding.

Hans Warmerdam, CEO and chief sales & marketing officer of affiliate SABIC FRT, said: "We're confident that the light commercial vehicle's bulkhead is the first of many structural applications where our innovative materials, combined with this novel processing approach, can help solve our customers' challenges of achieving lighter weight without compromising safety, durability and fuel or energy use.

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"Through continued collaboration among this unique team of engineers, designers and technical experts in materials and in conversion processes, we intend to explore more ways to expand the adoption of our thermoplastic composite technology."

The use of thermoplastic composites can lead to a significant reduction in mass in applications. In the case of the bulkhead, replacing a traditional metal component with the tape lamination within the part reduced mass by 35% in the application. Lower weight can also make the large bulkhead easier to handle, which could help to speedvehicle assembly.

This mass saving can be achieved without sacrificing the impact performance of the part, which is essential to protect occupants against injuries caused by shifting cargo. According to RLE International, the bulkhead complies with ISO 27956, the standard for securing cargo in delivery LCVs. The build-up of the process and the tensile strength are the main factors in optimising the impact resistance of the bulkhead.

Compared to metallic or injection molded part of a conventional, multi-piece bulkhead, the new method – designed, developed and engineered by RLE International – can reduce tool costs by up to 80% compared to injection moulding tools. This saving is due to the ability to replace an expensive, high-pressure tool with a lower-cost, low-pressure tool. Overall, the supplied cost of the LCV's bulkhead can be 10% lower than the conventional metallic bulkhead that it replaces.

This technology also represents a revolutionary change in vehicle panel production by increasing efficiency and reducing complexity. With moulding cycle times under two minutes, this streamlined process avoids sourcing and assembling multiple components, traditionally at different supplier locations, as well as secondary painting and trim operations.

A proprietary lamination featuring a core of extra-wide UDMAX tape woven by Setex incorporates aesthetic finish in a one-shot compression step. The process also allows to vary the thickness of the panel in order to improve noise, vibration and harshness (NHV) levels, helping to reduce noise in the vehicle. AMA Composites created the tool and moulded the concept parts.

"Our new technology offers tremendous opportunities to the automotive industry," said Mark Grix, head of interior & exterior engineering at RLE International.

"One example is the electric vehicle sector, where lower panel weight can extend driving range and lower-cost tooling can reduce capital investments for start-up companies."