By Steve Toloken, Plastics News Staff
Cangzhou, China - China's automobile market may have surpassed the US in 2009 to become the world's largest, but when it comes to plastics and cars, the country still has some catching up to do.
The average Chinese economy car uses about 110 lbs (50kg) of plastic, compared with 286 to 396 lbs per vehicle in mature markets like the US. That means Chinese cars use more metal, making them heavier, less fuel efficient and potentially more polluting.
But some foreign and Chinese industry officials believe the domestic car industry is ready to quickly adopt more plastic technologies as part of a broad strategy to be more environmentally friendly.
One concrete step: a group of global plastics suppliers and Chinese car companies, including Chang'an Automobile Group Co. Ltd., Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd. and Beiqi Foton Motor Co. Ltd, announced a technology alliance 28 Nov aimed at ramping up their use of plastics. The global resin firms include Rhodia SA, DSM NV and Arkema SA.
The alliance was announced at the 6th International Auto Plastics and Innovative Materials Development Forum in Cangzhou, where several Chinese car makers talked about their plans to increase use of plastics and challenges they faced.
A speaker from one of China's largest car companies, Wuhan-based DongFeng Motor Corp., said there is "still very big room for improvement" in use of engineering plastics in vehicles in the country, but said the company is adopting technologies like microcellular foam molding and sees a lot of value from plastics in weight-savings applications.
"In the past we have used foreign innovations," said Yang Dan, director of automotive materials. "In the future we hope we can make our own innovation and have our own materials and own processes."
Geely, one of China's largest privately owned auto makers, is using more plastics in bumpers, front-end modules, windows and other parts, and is working on using plastic and fibre composite materials, said Liu Qiang, director of material engineering at the Geely Automobile Research Institute.
Some Chinese firms are working on advanced technology, like Chinese Tier 1 supplier Ningbo Huaxiang, which is developing high-pressure resin transfer molding technology to try to economically mass produce structural car parts with carbon-fiber composites.
"If you speak about [replacing] structural parts, you have to talk about carbon fiber composites," said Karsten Brast, general manager of Ningbo Huaxiang Automotive Research and Development Co Ltd. in Ningbo and a former executive in European auto parts makers.
But Huaxiang may be something of an exception. Chinese car companies are keen to replace metals with plastics, but are not so quick to take the next step and make existing plastic parts lighter with gas-assisted injection molding and other new technologies, said Tang Qinghua, director of Beijing Chn-top Machinery Co. Ltd., which makes microcellular foaming injection moulding systems.
Several speakers suggested that China's car industry needs a business model with more cost-sharing of research and development to help it innovate, and many speakers said they were interested in much more collaboration across the supply chain.
But research in light-weighting technology can take years to be successful and it's not realistic for only one segment of the supply chain to bear the R&D risks, said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, vice president of automotive for Lyon, France-based materials supplier Rhodia.
The full version of this story appears on our sister publication, Plastics News