Look Out Aluminum, Thermoplastic Composites Can Reduce More Mass

"Aluminum Inferior to Steel? Not On The 2015 Ford F-150"

"Ford's aluminum F-150 takes Truck of the Year"

"After the Groundbreaking 2015 F-150, Should We Expect Aluminum Ford Cars Next?"

We've all seen the headlines; aluminum has dominated the lightweighting conversation ever since Ford announced the fully aluminum body structure on its 2015 Ford F-150. But is it worth all that buzz?

A thermoplastic composite can achieve the same performance for the same part but can do so with more than 20 percent mass savings when compared to aluminum.

The impressive 750-pound savings on the F-150 would indicate that it is. However, there is another option that may start making its way into headlines soon.

A thermoplastic composite can achieve the same performance for the same part but can do so with more than 20 percent mass savings when compared to aluminum.

You might think that plastic won't hold up its end of the bargain in terms of safety but the engineers at BASF say it won't crack under pressure. It actually has strong crash management performance in automotive applications thanks to its high energy absorption capabilities.

Thermoplastic composites offer the best possible combination of weight savings, cost efficiency and performance for body and chassis parts such as the structural inner shell for the hood, the roof crossbeams and seat structures.

Many of BASF's customers were skeptics when first introduced to thermoplastic composites. But after seeing the benefits and characteristics of Ultracom™, a full-service thermoplastic composite system, they quickly become believers.

Ultracom has three key components:

  1. Continuous fiber-reinforced semi-finished products: Ultralaminate™, laminates made of woven glass fiber fabrics, and Ultratape™, unidirectional, reinforced glass or carbon fiber tapes.
  2. Overmolding materials: Tailor-made plastics using Ultramid®, which help achieve the high stiffness and impact requirements.
  3. Engineering support: BASF's know-how in material processing and manufacturing and the accurate performance predictions for part design using BASF's technology, ULTRASIM®.

"The integration of these three components is key when making the metal-to-plastic conversion and without all three, we're less likely to see exceptional results," said Rob Lyons, senior manager of Lightweight Composite Technologies at BASF. "That being said, the main way we make believers out of our partners is through our comprehensive engineering and design support. Using the ULTRASIM technology, we accurately simulate and predict that our customers will be able reach the desired performance levels for their thermoplastic parts."

Last year, BASF won the inaugural Altair Enlighten award, presented in collaboration with the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), for its partnership with OPEL in creating a composite seat pan for the OPEL Astra OPC model passenger car. Given the strength of the composite laminate and the accuracy of the ULTRASIM data, the wall thickness of the pan was reduced without any negative impact on performance, allowing a 45 percent weight reduction when compared to its original metal counterpart.

"It's a really interesting time to be in this industry - looking at the manufacturing chain and understanding how it will shift to accommodate new materials," said Lyons. "Some of them are completely unique but in the end, using thermoplastic composite parts will save the automaker resources, time and money, and will help them achieve the lightweight part that they desire."

Either way, the industry is looking to the future, envisioning how vehicles will be crafted differently to meet upcoming regulations and customer demands. This means a new toolbox for automotive designers and engineers filled with new technologies, such as enabling composite materials like Ultracom, to achieve these integrated structures.