The Future Use of Structural Composite Materials in the Automotive Industry

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  • Topic: Composite material, Carbon fiber, Fibre-reinforced plastic
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  • Published : March 1, 2013
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The future use of structural composite materials in the
automotive industry

Enrico Mangino
Centro Ricerche Fiat, Strada Torino 50, 10043 Orbassano (TO), Italy enrico.mangino@crf.it

Joe Carruthers
NewRail, School of Mechanical & Systems Engineering, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK
joe.carruthers@ncl.ac.uk

Giuseppe Pitarresi
Dipartimento di Meccanica, University of Palermo, Viale delle Scienze, 90128 Palermo, Italy
pitarresi@dima.unipa.it

Abstract: The automotive industry‟s use of structural composite materials began in the 1950s. Since those early days, it has been demonstrated that composites are lightweight, fatigue resistant and easily moulded to shape – in other words, a seemingly attractive alternative to metals. However, there has been no widespread switch from metals to composites in the automotive sector. This is because there are a number of technical issues relating to the use of composite materials that still need to be resolved including accurate material characterisation, manufacturing and joining.

This paper reports the findings of a recent European initiative that examined the future use of composite materials in the automotive sector. The principal technical challenges that must be overcome in ten key areas relating to composite usage are reviewed. Furthermore, recommendations for future research priorities to overcome these challenges are presented. 1

Keywords: automotive, composite materials, future trends, research priorities.

Biographical notes:
Enrico Mangino joined Centro Ricerche Fiat in 1991 with a thesis on the crash of multi-layered composites. Since then he has worked in the polymer manufacturing group supporting the design and production of plastic parts (automotive and otherwise) through the numerical simulation of products and processes.

Joe Carruthers is the Materials and Structures Research Manager at NewRail, the railway research centre at Newcastle University. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and his main research interests relate to the development and application of lightweight materials for vehicles. Between 2001 and 2004 he was the co-ordinator of the COMPOSIT network on “The Future Use of Composites in Transport”, the initiative whose findings form the basis of this paper.

Giuseppe Pitarresi is a research associate at the Dipartimento di Meccanica (DIMA) of the University of Palermo. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Design and his main research interests range from experimental stress analysis techniques to the design and experimental characterisation of composite materials and structures.

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Introduction

If one was to try and pinpoint the birth of composites in the automotive sector, then the 1953 GM Motorama would be a good candidate. It was at this event that the Chevrolet Corvette was first unveiled (Figure 1). Six months later, this stylish convertible, polo white with red interiors, was in production. The Corvette was the first production car to use structural polymer composites*. Its body was made from fibreglass. Although the Corvette was not the first car to feature plastics (Bakelite had been used for distributor caps and steering wheels since the 1940s), this was a significant milestone. Since those early days, fibre reinforced polymers have been used for many automotive applications. However, there has been little widespread adoption within the mass production sector. Composite processing times are relatively long, raw materials (fibres, resins, etc.) are relatively expensive, and it can be difficult to achieve high quality surface finishes. There have also been concerns over stiffness and some durability issues (e.g. UV degradation). Therefore, more than fifty years on, the use of structural composites in high volume car production is still somewhat limited. Steel remains the material of choice for the majority of vehicle applications, not least because of continuing innovation by the steel manufacturers.

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