Getting charged up for EVs
Canadian PlasticsAutomotive Canadian Plastics
The electric vehicle revolution is here, and plastics are uniquely positioned to keep it moving forward.
You can’t stop an idea whose time has come, especially when it’s backed by overwhelming pressures. Take the global electric vehicles (EV) market, for example. The internal-combustion-engine platform that replaced the horse-and-buggy is itself set for obsolescence with the evolution of the EV, backed by governments around the world that have adopted policies that promote EVs as part of their sustainability efforts, even mandating their implementation in the decades ahead.
It might just be the biggest change in the history of automobiles and light trucks, and the Canadian government is firmly behind it, having identified EVs as a key contributor to achieving its transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 12 megatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030. EV sales in Canada grew almost 60 per cent last year, with 86,000 battery-electric and plug-in hybrids sold, accounting for 5.2 per cent of new registrations. That compares with 54,000 in 2020, making up 3.5 per cent of total vehicle registrations. Five years ago, EVs made up fewer than one in 100 new cars sold; in 2021, they made up one in 20. And the federal government has announced an aggressive transition plan: Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault intends to mandate that by 2026 electric vehicles make up one in five new passenger vehicles sold. By 2030, it must be at least half, and by 2035, all new vehicles sold must run on batteries. And it will be enforced: Guilbeault is currently developing a national sales quota system that will impose penalties on dealerships or car companies that don’t sell enough EVs.
Automakers are also on board. Many have detailed plans to electrify large portions of their fleets over the next decade, with some announcing goals for fully electrified lineups within five years. Dozens of pure battery EVs are set to debut by the end of 2024 if all goes according to plan, and even some parts makers are now entering the space: Canadian firm Magna International Inc. recently partnered with Israeli startup REE Automotive Ltd. to create its own EV; the project involves jointly building the EVs using REE’s platform, which can be modified to support light commercial vehicles.
The rapid expansion of the EV market isn’t all smooth, however. While consumer curiosity and interest in EVs is clearly growing, automakers simply don’t know how many EVs they’ll be able to sell in the next seven to eight years, nor whether they’ll have their factories, EV batteries, and supply chains prepared for to meet their goals, making it harder than usual to plan operations and launches. And inflation is wreaking further havoc, especially by pushing prices of raw materials higher. In Canada, meanwhile, sales aren’t on pace to meet the government’s new targets – at the current rate of growth, EVs will only make up about 15 per cent of new registrations by the end of 2026 – and most auto analysts say that achieving mass adoption of EVs in Canada won’t be solved by mandates alone, since not one country leading the world in EV adoption has a mandate in place. Instead, specific problems will have to be tackled, including solving global supply chain challenges – including a worldwide shortage of microchips that has bedeviled factory output for the past year and a half – increasing the consumer purchase incentives, and funding more charging stations. Some of these problems are easy to quantify: compared to other jurisdictions, for example, Canada has one of the least comprehensive and ambitious charging infrastructure plans, with a commitment to build just 50,000 public chargers; and Canada doesn’t even rank in the top 20 globally when it comes to purchase incentives, with a federal incentive of only $5,000.
But despite these hurdles, two things are already clear: plastics will continue to be crucial in driving the EV industry forward, and an increasing number of automotive OEMs and parts makers are getting involved by focusing on metal-to-plastic conversion and injection molded plastic parts to better align with the unique needs and environmental benefits of EVs and hybrids. And of that segment, it’s becoming a bigger part of their business. “Years ago, when we took on our first EV program, electric cars were rare,” said Maxwell Preston, communications manager with Axiom Group, an automotive parts molder based in Aurora, Ont. “Now less than 10 years later, over 35 per cent of parts we make throughout all of our locations end up in an EV, and that metric grows each year.”
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
With all of the noise about EVs, it’s a funny twist that one of the challenges in developing them is overcoming noise. EV engines are basically silent, meaning that even subtle noises like hums and whistles from the wind and road become more noticeable, and this is why sound absorption and noise dampening are hugely important – and why, according to a recent study conducted by BIS Research, the acoustic and thermal insulation material market to overcome Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) – the measure of how pleasant a car or truck is experienced while driving – for EVs will grow 21 per cent annually over the next decade.
And the solutions required to eliminate cabin noise – including seals, sound insulation foam, and TPE panel plugs – fall right in the wheelhouse of plastic product and rubber manufacturers. Axiom Group, for example, makes a one-piece hybrid acoustic wheel liner, with fabric overmolded into a large single component, that’s designed to reduce cabin noise in the vehicle.
But everything in automotive is a balancing act. “Manufacturers can’t sacrifice performance properties like lightweighting for anti-squeak adjustments,” said Mike Hale, global plastics technology director at Trinseo. “As the industry continues to embrace plastics for automotive use, NVH has the potential to save the vehicle industry time and money, but only if these polymers can maintain essential performance properties.”
As an example, EPDM rubber is considered by many to be the best material to stop sound, but it’s also heavy compared to thermoplastic vulcanizate alternatives. Which are where new materials that combine sound insulation properties with the lightweighting attributes come into play. An early developer was Cooper Standard, which released its Fortrex material to the market in 2017 – the proprietary blend of EPDM and TPV provides a two-decibel reduction in noise, which company officials said represents about 50 per cent, and is lighter weight than a traditional EPDM. Recently, it’s also been shown that polymers like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) can be modified to minimize excess sounds while retaining the same performance properties, including lightweighting.
Another area of emphasis with EVs is actually an old one with a new twist: weight reduction, as car companies look to extend the range of batteries for EVs. Utilizing plastic injection molded components has been standard practice in automobile manufacturing for decades now – because plastics are so lightweight, they can help reduce the weight of vehicles by replacing heavy materials like metal and glass to save energy and improve safety. Compared to similar components made from other materials, plastic components can often weigh 50 per cent less. This means lightweight plastics today can make up 50 per cent of a vehicle’s volume, but only about 10 per cent of its weight. While any car can use lightweight materials, they’re especially important for EVs to help offset the weight of electric motors and batteries – which make them weigh more than vehicles with traditional engines – and to enable performance. The lighter the vehicle, the longer it can run, and without lightweight components, EVs won’t have the range necessary to attract a critical mass of consumers. One way that OEMs are reducing body weight — in both EVs and traditional vehicles — is using polymer composites for structural components. For example, the insides of doors, fenders and liftgates increasingly are being reinforced with glass-fibre and/or carbon-fibre composites, which reduce the need for metal reinforcement. And common applications currently associated with EV drivetrains include electric motors, batteries, connectors, power control units, thermal management systems, and more.
All of which is why the use of plastics in EVs is plastics is projected to grow at a CAGR of 26.9 per cent to reach a market size of over US$2.5 billion by 2025, up from $US767 million in 2020. The key players in the plastics for electric vehicle market include BASF, Sabic, Dow, Lyondellbasell, DuPont, Trinseo, Covestro, Solvay, Lanxess, LG Chem, and Asahi Kasei. To cite just one example of what they’re accomplishing, Sabic has developed a plug-in hybrid EV battery cover that’s said to be the first thermoplastic solution for a battery cover that meets stringent new fire safety requirements that went into effect earlier this year in China. According to Sabic, the non-halogenated FR 30 per cent GR polypropylene copolymer (PPc) is 40 per cent lighter than the outgoing metal solution, offers inherent electrical insulation, seals against moisture intrusion, and won’t corrode. The 1.6-meter-long injection molded part is 2.0 millimeters thick and reduces cost and mass, increases safety, and contributes to extended driving range and sustainability. The cover is in production for Honda, and recently won an award from the automotive division of the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Speaking of batteries, a widely felt industry challenge for EVs continues to centre on battery life since – to repeat – the lighter the vehicle, the longer it can run. Today’s EVs, however, rely on heavy lithium-ion batteries that can increase the weight of a car by as much as 35 per cent; and one of the largest, the battery for the fully-electric Mercedes-Benz EQC comes in at a whopping 1,400 pounds. By replacing heavy electric cells with lightweight plastic components, however, automakers can extend the capacity of EVs to stay charged and extend their driving range. But realizing that potential will depend on battery makers’ ability to design for the large volume production of lithium battery packs that are smaller, lighter, and less expensive. And also, as the heart of the EV system, the battery must remain cool during operation. “Both vehicle reliability and range rely on the battery technology utilized, and so any threats tobattery performance, like hot climates for example, have to be countered,” said Tony Austin, technicaldirector at Europe-based parts molder Rosti. “Essentially, anincrease in ambient temperature results in reduced e-mobility battery life – the hotter thebatteries, the faster chemical reactions will occur and the faster the battery will discharge.Independent tests have shown that the self-discharge rate of a battery doubles every time thetemperature rises by 10°C. It’s also imperative that batteries are protected from overheating,which is possibly the worst scenario, as it will lead to rapid damage.”
There are a range of materials to choose from when designing battery enclosures for EVs; in particular, flame-retardant polycarbonate (PC) and ABS blends are increasingly preferred over other semicrystalline polymer classes like polyamide and PBT. Amorphous resins have clear advantages in that they experience minimal changes over a wide temperature range, and post-shrinkage is negligible. The use of PC and PC blends is said to be especially advantageous, since those materials also have high impact strength over a wide temperature range, high thermal management stability, good flame resistance, and a low coefficient of linear thermal expansion. Covestro, for example, offers Makrolon and Bayblend for electric vehicle battery modules.
And in a welcome development here at home, battery manufacturing for EVs is getting substantial investment from the Canadian government, as the country has the natural resources such as lithium to make this component at mass scale.
A NEW BUSINESS MODEL
EV’s aren’t just changing the automotive landscape, they’re also changing the actual business of making vehicles. “In the past, an OEM could reconfigure an existing internal combustion engine-powered vehicle with an electrified powertrain,” said Joe McCabe, president and CEO of AutoForecast Solutions, in Chester Springs, Pa. “If the vehicle didn’t sell as expected, that variant was eliminated from the portfolio. This had a minimal impact on the supply chain, with most of the parts remaining the same.” But the introduction of dedicated EV platforms forces the propulsion system to dictate design, McCabe noted. “Part count and content per vehicle will decline, replaced by fewer, larger modules,” he said. “Manufacturing processes will simplify, creating less demand for tools and machinery. All of these issues will create new challenges and change the competitive landscape for the supply base.” Most suppliers are used to working with a traditional supply chain, McCabe continued, supporting a traditional internal combustion engine-powered vehicle. “These vehicles have thousands of parts, but to accomplish new carbon footprint targets, EVs will force the number of parts per vehicle to dramatically decrease,” he said.
With the evolution of EVs – and the launch of Tesla and about a half-dozen other new automakers – sending a charge through the industry, parts suppliers will have to be even more nimble than before to stay competitive. In a move that marks a transition from battery EVs to fuel cell EVs, Guelph, Ont.-based parts molder Linamar Corp. partnered with Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver last year to develop and sell hydrogen fuel cell powertrains for use in light-duty electric vehicles, including passenger cars, SUVs, light trucks and commercial vans up to five tons in North America and Europe; and earlier this year they unveiled a concept hydrogen fuel cell powered class 2 truck chassis displayed in a RAM 2500 truck chassis.
There are opportunities, yes, but parts suppliers also have to be careful. “There are no shortages of new OEMs entering the EV marketplace and having suppliers invest millions into tooling, design, and development, only for those cars to never actually be delivered before the OEM closes its doors, leaving suppliers with large investments for vehicles that will never make production,” said Maxwell Preston. Another challenge in dealing with an automotive industry that’s in transition is that, as companies like Tesla try to establish markets, the traditional supply chain is becoming diluted and fractured, with more companies bringing out cars in smaller volumes, and fewer trim levels. “Most suppliers are used to working with a traditional supply chain, supporting a traditional IC-powered vehicle,” Joe McCabe said. “Suppliers are now facing a double-edged sword, providing core innovations at low margins while investing in new innovations for future, potentially lower volume applications.”
Another supply chain problem is the continuing shortages of microchips and semiconductors. The pandemic takes part of the blame for this, of course, with many factories, ports, and industries facing closures and labour shortages, made worse from the increased electronic demand with stay-at-home and work-from-home measures. And specific to the EV industry, the increased cell phone and electronic chip demand forced manufacturers to allocate their limited semiconductor supply to cell phones, which have a higher profit margin. Regardless of the factors, the semiconductor shortage is forecast to continue to plague the EV industry going forward. “We’ve definitely been affected by the semiconductor shortage, but we’re fortunate to have the diversification we do – many other suppliers were affected more than us,” Maxwell Preston said.
TOO BIG TOO FAIL
An upside is that governments and established automakers are trying to offer a steadying hand for an industry in mid-revolution. For example, there’s a major push going on to retool assembly lines at major car plants in Canada – including Stellantis, Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Toyota – so they can shift production from combustion-engine to plug-in vehicles, and the government is investing billions to help the processes proceed as smoothly as possible.
And for the part suppliers themselves, a counterbalance to the challenge of trying to understand what systems are going to change in a vehicle that has been fairly consistent for decades is the fact that molding parts for EVs is, in many ways, the same basic process as for internal combustion vehicles. “Design-wise, we may see some alternative considerations for an EV, such as an increased focus on noise reduction, but plastic is still plastic at the end of the day, and whether a grill-guard or front bumper goes on an EV or an internal combustion engine is irrelevant for our business; the learning curve we undertook would be no different if it were a non-EV program, and because we have a mix of EV and non-EV customers, our design teams are constantly flipping back and forth on different platforms,” Preston said. “Special care is only required when handling anything that includes electronics, but this is agnostic to EVs. As far as molding EV parts, our processing machines don’t need special tooling considerations, although as our EV business has grown we’ve invested in specialized equipment to keep improving our capabilities by acquiring rotary presses, larger tonnage machines, automated flame cells, and five-axis CNC machines.”
Historically, the automotive industry runs at a glacial pace, but the automakers’ shift to an all-electric future is moving fast. “In 2019, only 25 per cent of vehicle platforms built globally were dedicated to EV applications,” said Joe McCabe. “By 2028, [we] forecast this number to grow to 78 per cent. This means the industry is at a point of no return, since these dedicated platforms cannot be retrofitted for a traditional engine/transmission powertrain. The OEMs are investing in a too-big-to-fail business strategy, which suppliers will be forced to follow. So, it’s different this time.”