The increasing use of plastics in automotive applications will allow manufacturers more freedom in the design of new cars in coming years, a plastics expert said at a media briefing in Southfield, Michigan.

Susanne Mueller of BASF’s performance polymers business in North America said that a key trend in the use of plastics in coming years will be the replacement of the metal structure in the front end of new vehicles with a hybrid of engineering plastics and metal.

Replacing the metal structure behind the grill with a hybrid of metal and plastic will help enhance manufacturing efficiency because of the increasing trend toward modular assembly and it will enhance environmental performance via fuel efficiency because of weight reduction.

Car buyers are most likely to see new front-end designs as the most visible manifestation of this trend.

“The use of engineering plastics allows designers much more freedom to do things they couldn’t do in the past,” Mueller said. “You could see some more creative front end designs over the course of the next few years as designers test the limits. In theory you could do that with metal but that becomes far too labour intensive.”

Mueller said that engineering plastics — created from nylon with glass and mineral reinforcement — combine the advantages of strength, heat resistance and lower weight. Current uses include applications such as air intake manifolds and cylinder head covers.
“All plastics are not created equal. There is an enormous variety in plastics, from the ones used in drinking cups to the ones used in engine components,” Mueller said.

Mueller added that consumers tend to think of plastics in vehicles mainly in terms of body cladding or inexpensive interior elements. However, plastics are used in many applications that have enhanced safety and environmental performance.

“When it comes to safety, people think about metal as being solid. But the reality is that plastics are used to create energy absorbing surfaces and crumple zones inside and outside the car that protect people much more effectively. At the same time, we are creating environmental benefits by reducing overall weight,” Mueller said.

In addition to changes in front end design trends driven by high-end engineering plastics, Mueller said other coming trends include expanded use of plastics under the hood in applications such as a modular unit combining an oil pan, filter and pump. This type of application will reduce weight and help speed assembly through the use of more modular elements.