Three factors are converging that will have important implications for materials engineering of cars and trucks. All could contribute to greater use of precision molded metals and plastics.
One comes in the context of the powder metal market. The Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF) states in its annual State of the Industry report that close-tolerance European and Asian engineering standards for power train components are now becoming global standards.
“For example, in North America a Class 8 gear is normally acceptable, while European engineers require Class 9 and 10 gears,” says MPIF President Richard Pfingstler. “This trend has had the effect of forcing U.S. parts makers to meet tighter or ‘Europeanized’ tolerance requirements of less than 10 microns across the board.”
One impact is reduced use of powder metal parts. Another is to increase use of grinding and machining to achieve desired tolerances, steps that add significant cost. Another impact could be increased use of net shape metal injection molding.
Pfingstler adds: “The metal injection molding (MIM) industry has begun selling into the automotive market. Automotive engineers are designing more MIM parts, which points to significant potential growth as MIM becomes more accepted. MIM parts are being designed for engines, electrical systems, and chassis hardware.”
The trend toward lightweighting is also shaking up the powder metal industry, whose total shipments are up due to robust car sales, but per vehicle sales are declining.
“There is a new paradigm for light-weighting in the automotive industry,” says Pfingstler. “The trend spawned by manufacturers’ quest for higher CAFE numbers is toward smaller powertrains, from eight-, to six-, and to four-cylinder engines, and thus toward fewer and lighter-weight parts, and away from heavy PM bearing caps and powder-forged connecting rods. Other metals are also affected: castings, wrought forgings, and machined parts.
The new 2015 Ford F-150 truck, which weighs700 pounds less than the 2014 model, uses aluminum body panels and high-strength steel ladder-frames—technologies adapted from the aerospace industry. Solvay recently took leadership of the Polimotor 2 project, an effort to produce an all-plastic car engine.
Another aerospace technology—carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) will also play an important role in lightweighting cars and trucks.
The EPA is drawing up new regulations that will require heavy duty trucks to improve their fuel economies as much as 40 percent by 2027 (compared to 2010). There will be pressure to reduce weight of power trains, while improving efficiencies. Lighter materials and more aerodynamic designs will also play an important role. Look for increased replacement of steel panels with reinforced plastic, particularly super lightweight—and strong—CFRP, the same material used to produce the fuselage and wings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Producers such as Plasan Carbon Composites say they are developing technologies that will make costs of carbon composites much more competitive than they have been in the past five years.