Automotive’s Unique and Special Time
By Rachel Duran
Even though the automotive industry incorporates an enormous amount of technology in both the interior and exterior of cars the perception still remains that it is a dirty, dead-end Rust Belt industry. University-based and corporate research, pilot studies and product advancements by industry backers and auto OEMs continue to refute these old stereotypes.
In product developments, the BMW i3, an electric vehicle that debuted in Europe last fall, features a chassis made from carbon fiber reinforced plastics. The vehicle’s design excludes the center pillars, or b-pillars, between the two doors, creating clamshell or coach doors, making the car feel bigger than it actually is.
Another example of product advances is found in the Nissan Rogue’s power liftgate. It is fully recyclable, made from thermoplastic olefin, weighing 30 percent less than its steel predecessor. Recyclability and end of life initiatives are on the uptick. Plastics and composites are solutions for manufacturers in this regard. One trend centers on biobased solutions, such as materials used in seating. Metal applications do not offer these environmentally friendly items and options, says Gina Oliver, senior director of the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) automotive team, which advocates for the manufacturers of the resins used in the manufacture of composite parts.
Oliver shares findings from the forthcoming “Roadmap for 2030: Envisioning Plastics in Automotive Applications,” which the ACC will release early this year. The list of advances in automotive design and the use of multi-material applications goes on, such as the use of carbon fiber in structural items, including polycarbonate for glass replacement, and polycarbonate blends for items such as the exterior b-pillars.
The automotive industry is a high-tech industry, creating geographic clusters and hotbeds of academic and industry expertise. The industry features high-paying jobs, and the synergies found in clusters encourage spin-off activities. For instance, the Safety Pilot Model Deployment project taking place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is attracting the interest of non-automotive organizations, who want to be involved in the industry’s next big thing in regard to safety. The pilot program tracks the safety applications of connected vehicle technology; car to car and car to infrastructure.
The data resulting from the pilot program creates the basis for models used in the testing of these connected and automated technologies. This data is also attractive to companies such as Xerox and Verizon, as well as startups. “We meet with companies large and small about how they can vision the data — this goes beyond safety, such as energy, fuel consumption, sustainability, traffic management and other opportunities,” says Francine Romine, director of marketing and communications at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which heads up the pilot study.
UMTRI was awarded the pilot project from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and is the world’s largest research project looking at connected vehicle technologies. The study features 2,800 vehicles, 2,500 of which are outfitted with transmitters that communicate speed, location and direction, 10 times a second. In addition, 300 of the vehicles also receive signals. This year and next, the study aims to encompass 9,000 vehicles deployed throughout the 27-square-mile Washtenaw County, beyond the initial test quadrant of northeast Ann Arbor, Romine notes.
Communities and regions find automotive clusters desirable because they attract STEM-educated workforces, particularly engineers. For example, no other state in the country has half the density of engineers, 15 per 1,000 workers, which is found in Michigan, where the vast majority are tied to the automotive industry, says Bernard Swiecki, the assistant director of the Automotive Communities Partnership for the Center for Automotive Research, based in Ann Arbor. He is a co-author of “Just How High-Tech is the Automotive Industry?,” which was released this year.
“If a community has a concentration of educational institutions, it increases the chances of attracting these high-tech automotive companies,” Swiecki says. He says these corporations are quite often tied to local education institutions, which generates an available talent pool.
The Moses Lake, Wash., community is home to SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers GmbH & Co. KG (ACF), which is a joint venture of the SGL Group and the BMW Group. The region’s experienced base of workers skilled in composites manufacturing, thanks to the vast aerospace cluster, was attractive to the company. “The state’s higher education system offers courses in this area [composites], so a lot of people are qualified,” says Katharina Schraidt, manager of communications, ACF. “It was very important for us to find experienced employees.” The company employs 80 people at its Moses Lake operation.
ACF produces carbon fibers for use in the BMW i series of vehicles, such as the chassis in the BMW i3. The carbon fibers spools produced in Moses Lake are sent to Wackersdorf, Germany, where they are processed into carbon fiber fabrics. The carbon fiber fabrics are then cut, stacked and resin treated at the BMW sites in Landshut and Leipzig.
“The scrap parts from the cutting process are recycled at our plant in Germany,” Schraidt says. “This material is made into a nonwoven complex, which is used, for example, in the roof of the BMW i3. So the material is reused to make a closed loop production cycle.”
Moving to Ann Arbor, UMTRI has a history of conducting studies in connected technology and infrastructure. “As a university organization, we recognize that certainly transportation is critical to Michigan, and particularly southeast Michigan, which has been hit hard economically,” Romine says. “Any time we can do things to help reinvigorate the economy, to bring in new businesses — that is what we are focused on.”
To that end, last year, the University of Michigan announced the creation of the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), which is a public and private partnership focused on creating a revolution in the mobility of people and freight. Partners include the university’s college of architecture and urban planning, the college of engineering, automotive OEMs and others. “Together we will envision a new transportation system, the types of business that will be involved, systems, platforms and technology,” Romine says.
Another higher education and industry collaboration is underway at Michigan State University. The ACC is partnering with the university’s composite vehicle research center on two demonstration projects. The ACC’s automotive division promotes the use of plastics and composite applications in vehicles, for example to assist with mass reduction in automobiles, also known as lightweighting, in order to achieve fuel economy standards.
The demonstration projects aim to develop solutions for the joining of dissimilar materials, such as steel and composites, in automobiles. Current solutions include adhesive and bonding solutions. The projects will also demonstrate how advanced plastics and composites can be used within the current assembly environment with little to no tooling or infrastructure changes, says the ACC’s Oliver.
Oliver says officials at the university’s research center were ready to collaborate because they were interested in more interactions with industry. The partnership gives the center a great opportunity to “work with the materials supplier; and ACC is also partnering with the Center for Automotive Research, which brings in that OEM piece,” she says.
Beyond this collaboration, the ACC is working to ensure carbon fibers are seen as a cost competitive material for use in the automotive industry. “We have a history of working with manufacturers to provide new and innovative parts consolidation solutions, for example, which decrease overall costs, and at the same time, increase value to the customer,” Oliver says. “We are also working to increase the production time. We want to avoid retooling and infrastructure changes in facilities. This is one of the challenges in regard to manufacturers – they are thinking about costs.”
Unique Time in Safety Mobility
Members of the automotive industry are willing to collaborate to achieve their goals, be they in design, manufacturing, sales, what have you. An increasing area of interest is in sustainable manufacturing processes and going green, particularly when it comes to energy.
For example, ACF’s site search committee was looking for a location that would allow the company to achieve its requirement for using green energy. Schraidt says the Moses Lake site is located close to the Columbia River and its high number of dams generating hydroelectric power. Two of the dams dedicated their energy generation to the ACF plant, which operates with 100 percent hydropower. The company’s German plant, which is not located near a large river, uses a mix of green energy sources to operate the facility.
In addition to achieving sustainability goals, ACF also needs a site that will allow it to expand in the future. The company is located at the ASPI Tech Park in Moses Lake, where it is constructing a second building similar to the first, which could double capacity, Schraidt notes.
Another factor contributing to ACF’s success in Moses Lake is the willingness of government officials to welcome new industry to the region and the state. “It was important to move fast and get things done in time and they were helpful with this,” Schraidt says.
Says Romine of her local economic development group, Ann Arbor SPARK: “They are not auto experts, they are not transportation experts; however, they understand that these [automotive] efforts can bring opportunity to the area. Their expertise in being able to ignite and excite different innovations and entrepreneurs is strong.”
The organization will soon have yet another asset to promote in regard the automotive cluster in southeast Michigan. Later this year, the Michigan Mobility Test Facility will be operational, which will feature a simulated and urban environment for testing connected and automated vehicles. “It will feature about three lane miles of road, intersections, traffic signals, sidewalks, benches, buildings and obstacles,” Romine says. “The goal is to test these connected and automated technologies before they get on the road.”
Long-term goals for the ongoing Safety Pilot Model Deployment program are to equip 20,000 vehicles, mostly corporate and government fleets, and heavy trucks, with connected technologies; as well as design a network of 2,000 vehicles that are connected, coordinated and automated, and create a real life deployment.
“This is an incredibly unique and special time, when the OEMs, the federal government and researchers believe this is the next big step in automotive safety,” Romine notes. “It is an exciting research project to be part of.”
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Illustration by renjith krishnan at Free Digital Photos.net