TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Decarbonization regulations by various governments prodding the auto industry to not only develop but use sustainable materials is an irreversible trend, say panelists at the Center for Automotive Research’s 2021 Management Briefing Seminars.
And, for an industry that for decades has placed cost savings paramount, it may sting to hear materials, many of them bio-based, will be pricier.
“It might cost you some upfront, but that’s going to become your norm,” Donna Dixon, chief engineer-Mustang Mach E battery-electric vehicle for Ford tells attendees during the panel, “Sustainability Trends in Automotive: Strategies for a Path Forward.” Not only will the material likely cost more, but companies too will have to invest in modernizing the equipment that tests it, she says.
Ford, which dabbled in sustainable materials in its models for years with recycled content in door trim, headlamps and taillamps, naturally employed them on the Mustang Mach-E BEV.
Even the fabric wrapping the vehicle’s B&O speakers is sustainable, sourced from 25% recycled materials, Dixon says. She notes sustainable materials still need to meet customer expectations for look and feel, and it took some time to get the speaker right, not only from a sensory and tactile perception but also for it to have the expected sound.
“As you use and reuse, you’re going to get the benefit from it,” Dixon says of the initial added cost of sustainable materials coming down. “If we (OEMs and supplier partners) get the scalability on it and the cost sharing – the way you manufacture it, the cost shouldn’t be a question.” Panelists agree scalability is key to solving the cost conundrum for sustainable materials vs. traditional materials.
Faurecia’s Katie Roco (pictured below, left), customer engineering director for its North American interior systems, says although a product may be “a little more costly” per kilogram, because the industry is always targeting lighter-weight solutions, less material should be needed. Says Roco: “We’re using better and we’re using longer, so that will offset that maybe cost-per-kilo impact. What we’re really delivering is cost neutral products to our consumers.”
Roco and BASF’s Matthew Parkinson, senior manager-application development engineering and composites technologies, both tout some of their respective company’s bio-based materials as solutions to improving the sustainability of composites.
Faurecia’s NAFIlean, using hemp fibers, was introduced in 2008, but now has four variants with two more to launch soon. It’s a 100% recyclable material and Faurecia is aiming to be carbon negative with a new recycled version it expects to release next year, Roco says.
BASF has developed Elastoflex, with castor bean oil-based polyurethane, with the bio-based castor oil making up 20% of the product overall.
BASF is not as far along with the end-of-life solutions for Elastoflex, with Parkinson noting the supplier is trying to increase incrementally the material’s recyclability profile, he tells Wards.
However, the chemicals specialist is taking plastic waste and creating sustainable plastics via chemical rather than mechanical recycling, as well as working to scale up the process to achieve cost neutrality with sustainable materials.
While end-of-life issues for plastics may have yet to be solved, Parkinson says they can be more sustainable on the front end in terms of lightweighting. He notes BASF’s Ultramid third-row seatback for the ’21 Toyota Sienna resulted in 30% mass savings vs. the 15-piece steel component it replaced, and, echoing Roco’s point on lightweighting as a discounter of sorts, 15% cost savings.