Cooperations with the automotive industry drive growth of the composites industry


BMW and SGL, Ford and DowAksa, Hyundai and Hyosung, Mitsubishi and Wethje or Volvo and Benteler-SGL as well as Henkel – these are just some of the examples of the close cooperations between major automotive enterprises and firms in the composites sector for putting innovative new applications into practice. The automotive industry, including commercial vehicles, continues to be one of the major growth drivers for fibre composite solutions.

Lightweight construction plays an especially important role within the context of e-mobility in the automotive sector. “Lightweight construction is of particular significance for Germany’s industry to compete on a global scale and, hence, for “Made in Germany”; as a central core technology it strengthens our international top position,” confirms Dr. Elmar Witten, General Manager of AVK and the trade association Composites Germany, one of the initiators of the position paper “Deutschland muss Leitanbieter für den Leichtbau werden” (Germany must become the Lead Supplier for Lightweight Construction).

New processing methods are in high demand

Considered an especially promising processing method is Resin Transfer Molding (RTM) because already today it achieves short cycle times of just a few minutes. “The mass production of automobiles still primarily relies on GRP at present. For one thing, CFP parts are still too expensive and, for another, there are no suitable processing methods available yet that would live up to the high standardisation requirements and production speeds in automotive manufacturing,” said analysts in a study conducted by market research institute Ceresana in 2017.

The VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency also sees enormous growth potential for composites in the transport sector in its report “Bestandsaufnahme Leichtbau in Deutschland” (Snapshot of Lightweight Construction in Germany) published in 2015, that analysed hitherto unpublished market studies. Here analysts expect an average annual growth of 7% to 8% in the transport sector and forecast the global market to reach some EUR 140 billion by 2020. The authors identified automotive manufacturing and commercial vehicles, in particular, as the main drivers.  

One example of a possible successful cooperation between an automotive manufacturer and a composites producer comes care of COMPOSITES EUROPE exhibitor SGL TECHNOLOGIES. During the 8-year cooperation with BMW, SGL’s lightweight construction solutions have been instrumental to the success of the i3 and i8 models. Looking back on another successful collaboration begun in 2015 are DowAksa and Ford. Here the aim is to accelerate the development of CFP applications for future series and, hence, for largescale production. The partnership between Henkel and Benteler-SGL has resulted in the series launch of a composite transversal leaf spring in not just one but several Volvo models. The transversal leaf spring integrated into the rear axle brings about a weight reduction of 4.5 kg compared to conventional steel coil springs, which reduces fuel consumption as well as CO2 emissions and creates additional space in the trunk.  

High potential for lightweight construction

“Central challenges for automotive manufacturers include the reduction of CO2 emissions specified by the EU Regulation, new safety requirements and e-mobility,” reads the analysis of the VDI Centre which explains that the areas of activity for lightweight construction range from the selection and combination of materials through to component design and systematic approaches for complete vehicles.  

Lightweight construction is an important lever for reducing fuel consumption, confirms the market study “Leichtbau als Innovationstreiber” (Lightweight Construction as an Innovation Driver” - a cooperation project of Automotive Management Consulting GmbH (AMC) and COMPOSITES EUROPE organiser Reed Exhibitions. “Since the energy balance of tomorrow’s low-energy and low-emission vehicles will primarily also depend on efficient lightweight construction there is a clear trend towards integrative vehicle concepts,” says study leader Rainer Kurek von AMC.

A similar view is shared by the authors of the “Composites-Marktbericht 2017” (Composites Market Report 2017) published by Carbon Composites e.V. and AVK, which will also be represented at COMPOSITES EUROPE in Stuttgart: they also expect the highest growth rates in the automotive sector including commercial vehicles over the coming years. “Also against the backdrop of the current political discussions (diesel emissions scandal, advances in e-mobility, pressure to enforce the energy transition, stricter CO2 requirements) additional laws and tax adjustments could provide a positive incentive for the lightweight construction market,” say experts.

Stable growth for CFP applications

Experts see slight yet stable growth for CFP applications in automobiles in line with market growth for the composites industry as a whole, which has grown over five consecutive years now. The now great importance of this segment for economy as a whole, they say, is one reason why trends in CFP production follow developments in GNP in the long-term view.  

For CFP producers the automotive industry still ranks second in terms of demand and turnover. This, however, will change soon. According to forecasts, by late 2020 the demand created in this sector of industry will exceed that of aerospace (including defence). “In this scenario the automotive sector will account for some 30% of global demand amounting to approx. 239,000 tons,” forecasts say. This would correspond to about 72,000 t.

The authors of the market report currently see a major problem in the image of composites. Despite these materials’ outstanding corrosion properties, high shape retention, low-maintenance characteristics and durability as well as the possibility they offer to combine load-specific designs with a high degree of design freedom, composites are unfortunately still little known to decision-makers. Their warning: “To improve this situation is one of the most pressing tasks for the industry as a whole.”