By Mark Stephen, Managing Editor
W ith the amount of time that most of us spend inside our cars, it's no surprise the automotive industry remains focused on improving auto interiors. At both the K-2007 Show in October 2007, and the S...
With the amount of time that most of us spend inside our cars, it’s no surprise the automotive industry remains focused on improving auto interiors. At both the K-2007 Show in October 2007, and the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) World Congress last month, resin suppliers presented a wide variety of new products geared towards interior components that are softer, lighter, and just plain different than ever before, without sacrifice of all-important surface appearance.
CHROME, LAYERS ARE HOT
One of the most popular trends in automotive design is the resurgence of chrome in interior trim and other decorative touches, to impart a high-end, luxury look. SABIC Innovative Plastics recently introduced a portfolio of materials optimized for chrome plating. These specialized grades of Cycoloy polycarbonate/acrylonitrile-butadiene- styrene (PC/ABS) resin and Cycolac ABS resin, featuring low stress and superior adhesion to the metal layer, are designed to help automakers easily incorporate jewel-bright chrome details into their designs. “The use of a chrome effect is a great way to give passenger vehicles a more upscale look, and the best approach today is the use of metallized plastic — for simplicity, weight savings, and design freedom,” said Dirk Noordegraaf, SABIC’s operations manager, application technology.
In addition, the company is introducing the Expression 2009 palette of colours, available in a range of its Visualfx resins, to help auto designers explore new aesthetic possibilities in such applications as steering wheels, door trim, and consoles; and also providing transparent and translucent resins for special processes such as two-shot molding and hydrographics.
Two-shot molding involves layering translucent or transparent resin on top of a transparent, translucent, or opaque resin, with the top layer giving the part added depth. Hydrographic technology calls for immersing a part in an ink pattern floating on water like a film. The pattern adheres to the part, adding design interest. Also, the pattern can wrap around the part to provide better coverage than with traditional in-mold decoration applications. A clear coat is utilized after the hydrographic process to protect the film. The coating can change the appearance of the application if a matte or soft touch surface finish is used instead of high gloss.
These two processes have been used in combination for several different versions of the steering wheel for DaimlerChrysler’s 300C model.
One version used opaque gray resin with transparent gray Lexan resin and hydrographics. Another featured a tortoiseshell look by using transparent, amber Lexan resin in a two-shot process with hydrographics.
Originally introduced in 2004, BASF’s SkinForm process has now been used for the fist time for a serially produced part in automotive construction: the headrest of the latest Mercedes-Benz models of the C-, S-, M-, R-and GL-Class.
According to BASF, the thermoplastic support for the rear headrest cover is made of Terblend N NM-19, BASF’s ABS/PA blend. The plastic is easy to process, the company said, and adheres well to polyurethane. Moreover, the manufacturing process combines reaction and injection molding, so that a single process step yields a high-quality result: a polyurethane outer skin and a mechanically sturdy, thermoplastic support.
Weight savings are never far from the minds of parts suppliers, and this includes carving weight from interior applications. In October, DuPont Enigneering Polymers formed an alliance with Canadianbased Morph Technologies Inc., Integran Technologies Inc., and U. S.-based PowerMetal Technologies that could bring about dramatic weight reductions in interior auto parts.
The alliance will develop and commercialize a nanocrystalline metal/polymer hybrid technology called Meta- Fuse, designed to create components in a variety of complex shapes with the stiffness of magnesium or aluminum and higher strength, combined with the lightweight benefits of high-performance thermoplastics.
“Metal offers strength and high stiffness, but is limited in its ability to enable integration and to cost-effectively create complex shapes,” said Clive Robertson, business development manager with DuPont. “Conversely, thermoplastic offers tremendous freedom to create shapes and to integrate function, but it has suffered from some limitation in combining strength and stiffness. With this technology, designers can have the best of both worlds.”
While science has developed sophisticated measurement instruments that can assess the properties of a given material, this equipment is still no match for the sensory perception provided by simple human touch. A coating layer only a few hundredths of a millimeter thick can drastically alter the tactile perception of a material or a component.
The Audi R8 sports car uses new “soft-touch” coatings formulated with raw materials from Bayer Material- Science (BMS) to please the fingertips. Other car makers also use the company’s soft-touch coatings to finish the surfaces of such components as consoles, door handles, door trims, arm rests and glove box covers. Sunlight and contact with hand creams or sunscreens also have a much-reduced impact compared with previous softtouch coatings, BMS said.
Waterborne soft-touch polyurethane coatings formulated with BMS raw materials also have very low emissions. In addition, they are applied only in thin coats and, unlike some plastic skins, they contain no plasticizers.
“Thanks to intensive development work by BMS’ Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties Business Unit, we can now offer raw materials for waterborne softtouch coatings that satisfy even the most stringent requirements for resistance to moisture, yellowing and chemicals,” said Dr. Torsten Pohl, director, business development industrial coatings, BMS LLCPohl. “The fact that these coatings also have very low VOC emissions adds to their allure in today’s ever-greener automotive market.”
LyondellBasell Industries (formerly Basell) is now actively marketing its Softell family in North America, and the materials first use in instrument panels and door panels are slated for 2009 vehicles.
Based on a series of ethylene-propylene plastomers, Softell auto interior grades are compounded with polypropylene and between 20 and 25 per cent glass fiber.
Softell with molded-in colour is offered as an alternative to PC/ABS with soft-touch paint for instrument panels, consoles, arm rests and other parts requiring a low-gloss look.
According to the company, the product offers good scratch and mar resistance. “A lot of the products used in the industry are typical TPOs, which use talc as the filler,” said Jane Horal, Basell’s interior segment manager. “The Softell resin uses very fine glass particles, making the product harder, which allows for better scratch resistance.”
In addition, Softell offers ductility at -30C, with no fragmentation, making it suitable for seamless airbag applications. “Auto interiors are becoming a combination of soft feels and hard, and this technology lets OEMs place the soft feel where they need it,” said Horal.
LET IT FLOW
Automotive air registers (the heat and air conditioning outlets in the dashboard) must visually compliment the interior look of a vehicle while providing a high degree of functionality over a broad temperature range. The vanes, or movable elements in the register, must actuate easily and smoothly for the lifetime of the vehicle.
DSM Engineering Plastics’ Akulon Ultraflow high flow nylon 6 compounds are intended for applications of this sort, with glass fiber reinforcement levels up to 60 per cent, which allow OEMs to “dial-in” the needed modulus for vane stiffness and dimensional stability in specific applications. “Ultraflow has been around for 10 years,” said Mark Schireson, busin
ess development manager for Akulon nylon. “What makes Akulon Ultraflow high flow nylon 6 compounds unique is it’s a very high flow family of nylon 6 compounds.”
Even at the higher glass loadings, the processing characteristics of these materials allow for low injection pressures resulting in warp-free vanes and superior surface appearances that eliminate the need for painting. “Most of the Tier 1 suppliers making those vanes had gone to glass reinforced polyester for the stiffness, but were getting a very poor, glassy surface appearance — and wound up painting them, which is an expensive process,” said Schireson. “Because of the additives that we put into the Ultraflow to make it high flow, it yields an extremely resin rich surface, and buries the glass appearance.”
Vane assemblies tend to be manufactured as entire integrated units during a single molding cycle. This advanced process requires a material with a very high degree of dimensional stability as well as a low injection pressure to avoid vane warping, and Ultraflow compounds meet both these requirements. For example, Ultraflow K-FHG0, a 50 per cent glass reinforced version, exhibits the same molding and flow characteristics of a 30 per cent glass reinforced standard flow nylon 6, while providing the stiffness and dimensional stability of higher priced exotic thermoplastics.
According to DSM, Ultraflow compounds that have been used for air register vane applications include K-FHG6, K-FHG8,K-FHG0,K-FHG12 (high flow nylon 6 with 30, 40, 50 and 60 per cent glass fibers) that provide increasing strength and modulus with increasing glass fiber loadings; and K-FHGM35 (high flow nylon 6 with 40 per cent glass fiber/mineral) which provides a balance of mechanical properties and dimensional stability.
Ultraflow nylon 6 compounds are available in natural, standard blacks, OEM interior blacks and colours, and can also be stabilized to meet automotive interior UV requirements.
Canada’s autoindustry “competing without a net”: study
With many traditional sources of competitive advantage either disappearing or being significantly reduced, Canada’s automotive labour market must remain leading edge to overcome future challenges, according to a new study by the Council for Automotive Human Resources (CAHR).
“The automotive marketplace is constantly changing and its workforce must change with it,” said John Mavrak, executive director of the Toronto-based CAHR. “While having a skilled workforce will not ensure the survival of the industry, the absence of such a labour market will ensure the demise of its competitive advantage.”
The 261-page report, Competing Without a Net: The Future of the Canadian Automotive Industry, is intended to analyze the human resource challenges and requirements for the vehicle manufacturing sector, as well as provide a baseline of market information that can be used in future sector studies. “We think the term ‘competing without a net’ accurately represents the fact the industry must take concrete steps to survive, and can’t afford any missteps while doing so,” Mavrak explained.
The report outlines current and future conditions within Canada’s automotive sector; describes the impact of technology on human resources requirements; assesses questions surrounding labour supply, demand and training; and identifies successful human resources policies.
Information for the report came from a wide variety of sources. “We looked at various segments of the industry: everything from car assemblers, to bus and truck plants, to major parts makers to Tier 2 and Tier 3 parts makers,” Mavrak explained. “We received 1,700 employee surveys, carried out 146 employer surveys, and talked to senior HR managers and CEOs from selected companies.”
The report identifies three broad factors as being key influencers to the future performance of Canada’s vehicle parts industry. First, new and replacement investment will need support, incentives and cost advantages to justify retention of facilities and modernization of existing assets. “Attracting more investment in assembly plants is crucial,” Mavrak said. “Assembly plants are the anchors of the industry; having assembly plants creates opportunities throughout the supply chain, which in turn brings in more parts makers.”
Second, labour agreements will play a large role. The 2007 labour agreements in the U. S. provided health care cost realignment, plus product, assembly and employment guarantees in exchange for two-tier wages. “The U. S. successfully regained lost competitive advantage. Canada will need to work hard to retain what it has,” Mavrak said.
Third, the rise of Mexico will be a factor. “Small car production in Mexico will almost triple by 2014,” Mavrak said. Furthermore, Mexico will surpass Canada as the second largest producer of light vehicles in North America by early next decade, he added.
“According to our surveys, automotive suppliers are shocked and awed by the level of change in the industry, but are working very hard to remain as competitive as they can,” Mavrak said. “We’ve tried to provide information to help them accomplish this.”
To learn more about the sector study, visit CAHR’s website, www.cahr-crha.ca/www/site/projects/sectorstudy.htm.
BASF Canada (Toronto);www.plasticsportal.net; 866-485-2273
Bayer Inc. -Division of Bayer AG (Toronto);www.bayer.ca; 866-770-1102
DSM Engineering Plastics (Evansville, Ind.);www.dsm.com; 812-435-7539
E. I. DuPont Canada Company (Mississauga, Ont.);www.plastics.dupont.com; 800-387-2122
LyondellBasell Industries (Lansing, Mich.);www.lyondellbasell.com; 517-336-4800
SABIC Innovative Plastics (Toronto);www.geplastics.com; 800-323-3783
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