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Automotive industry, Materials, Plastic foams

Plastics in automotive construction - technology development and prospects

11 November 2021

As hard as it may be to believe, plastics and cars are inventions of the same era, the 19th century. Today, they are increasingly used in the construction of modern cars. In this context, they are often referred to as the materials of the future due to their light weight, strength and easy formability. But modern plastics offer many more advantages.

Plastics have been with the automotive industry from the very beginning. The earliest thermoplastic material, celluloid, was invented in 1855, and only thirty years later the first vehicle to be considered a car, the Carl Benz Patentwagen 1, was built. The first attempt to build a car made entirely of plastic was made by Henry Ford in 1941, due to steel rationing during the war. The mass use of plastics, however, started with the production of the Ford T model in 1951.

Today, it is estimated that a statistical vehicle contains between 40 and 100 kg of various plastic parts, which account for only 10% of its weight. With the dynamic progress in plastics processing technologies, the range of applications in modern vehicle construction continues to grow and designers and constructors have more and more opportunities thanks to the excellent quality and optimum parameters of plastic parts.

Lightweight plastic automotive parts  

The gradual replacement of metal components by plastic automotive parts has always been driven by the need to reduce vehicle weight and improve performance. Plastics have a lower density than steel while offering increasingly better properties in terms of mechanical strength and durability. Initially automotive plastics were mainly used for interior finishing. Today, they are also used for exterior car parts traditionally reserved for sheet metal and steel such as doors, fenders, bonnets and even bumpers. No wonder – the ACC estimates that American cars travel around 1.5 kilometres more per litre of petrol than they would without plastics. Greater range with lower energy requirements is a key benefit for the electric car segment in particular.

Today, newer types of plastics are used in cars. For example, traditional polyurethane foam seat and head restraint panels are being replaced by much lighter and more durable expanded polypropylene (EPP), which is also a renewable material and therefore better suited to today's automotive trend.

New types of plastics in cars  

One of the reasons why plastic parts are becoming increasingly important in the construction of modern cars is the rapid development of plastic processing technology. Plastics used in cars have the potential to develop new properties to meet the rapidly changing needs of the automotive industry. One example is safety, which is now mainly discussed in terms of active systems. However, the increasing sophistication of the electronics must be followed by a robust vehicle construction and the use of new materials that better protect not only the passengers, but also the sensitive components of intelligent systems.

Polypropylene foam not only absorbs shocks and impacts very well, but also insulates cables and electronic components thermally. Thanks to special additives, it can withstand fires and temperatures of up to 140°C, as confirmed by UL 94 tests. What is more, it is already being successfully used, for example, in the manufacture of batteries for electric cars due to its puncture resistance, as well as the possibility of giving it antistatic properties. Specialized parts made of this plastic can also have increased resistance to shock or mechanical fatigue. This is why they work so well in car boots, for example. 

Renewable plastics in cars is the current trend  

The interiors of premium cars used to be characterized by exclusive additions of natural leather, shiny metal or wood. Today, ecology has become the benchmark of luxury. For this reason, high-end vehicles cannot fail to feature elements made of materials that are fully renewable, do not deplete natural resources and are produced using ecological processes. Their use is no longer the exception, but has become the rule. In Europe, manufacturers are even obliged to use such materials under the EU directives, which constantly increase the requirements related to the suitability of vehicles for recycling. The EPP foamed polypropylene produced by Knauf Industries is fully compliant with these requirements and gives designers a wide range of possibilities to individually design the interiors of high-end cars. 

This modern plastic is 100% recyclable and can be reused in subsequent manufacturing processes. The compression moulding process itself does not generate harmful emissions into the atmosphere, and the process water needed to generate steam circulates in a closed loop. What's more, thanks to modern 3D visualisation techniques,  coloured granules and tactile textures, plastic car parts can have a fully customised aesthetic. All this makes this material a part of the future of automotive industry. 

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