Automotive composites post-Covid – highs and lows

6 min read

How might Covid affect the use of composites in auto applications? Reinforced Plastics spoke to Eric Haiss, global director of automotive business development at global thermoset specialist IDI Composites about the history of the company and the way forward.

IDI Composites International (IDI), headquartered in Noblesville, IN, USA, makes thermoset molding compounds for molders and OEMs and recently developed a new line of structural thermoset composites in sheet and bulk formats for a range of markets such as military and aerospace, transportation, safety, medical, electrical, oil and gas, alternative energy, and marine.

The company, which owns manufacturing facilities in North America, Puerto Rico, the UK, France, China and Mexico, recently increased its focus on the automotive industry, and in particular the electric vehicle (EV) and new energy vehicles (NEV) businesses. The market for EV and NEV vehicles is growing exponentially, with sales expected to double in 2020, reaching four million new cars globally, according to IDI.

In March 2020, the company developed a new flame-resistant lightweight plastic composite for EV battery packs. (Figure 1.) According to IDI, Flamevex can be used to make battery packs that have passed the stringent Chinese Standard GB/T 31467.3 test, commonly known as the China bonfire test.

While steel has long been a preferred material for this type of application, the heavy weight makes it a poor choice, says IDI. While aluminum and carbon fiber provide more lightweight options, these technologies are still in development, making them inherently risky and costly, according to Yves Longueville, general manager for IDI in Shanghai, China. ‘Thermoset composites represent an ideal replacement for metals in these kinds of battery enclosures,’ said Longueville. ‘Thermoset materials can be formed into complex shapes and they are also strong and lightweight.’

In September 2020, the company appointed Eric Haiss (Figure 2.) as its new global director of automotive business development. He comes to the company with more than 20 years of experience in the automotive industry and 11 years’ involvement in the promotion and adoption of composite materials for automotive applications. For example, he spearheaded the conceptual development and launch of General Motors’ CarbonPro pick-up box for its Sierra truck.

At his appointment, Eric emphasised at the time the company’s new focus on EV applications. ‘Electrification of the auto industry is increasing the importance of composites and IDI has the cutting-edge materials and global manufacturing operations OEM’s demand to meet their performance and lightweighting goals,’ he said. 

I spoke to Eric about the history of IDI and where he thinks the automotive market is headed.

Liz Nickels (LN): Tell me about your background.

Eric Haiss (EH): I have a Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering with a plastics specialty and a Master of Science in administration. I’ve worked in the automotive industry since 1990 and most recently spent the last 11 years with Teijin.

LN: Things must have changed quite a lot since 1990!

EH: Yes, many things. I started work in Flint, Michigan which, at the time, was a heavily automotive town. It was hit pretty hard as the automotive industry started to expand its footprint in Mexico. A lot of the places I worked at when I was in college and just out of college are no longer there today, they’re just open fields now.

LN: What’s the history of the company?

EH: The company was startedf in 1966 by John Merrell and continues to be a family-owned and operated company. The Merrell family is still ery involved in the company today. We started making molding compounds in the 1970s, and today we now have six wholly owned manufacturing locations throughout the world in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Many of our customers are global and we’re able to provide the same or very similar materials around the world for their needs.

 

LN: Has the company always focused on thermosets?

 

EH: Yes; we’re a global manufacturer of thermoset molding compounds and we provide polyester, vinylester, bulk molding compounds, sheet molding compounds and a new line of structural thermoset composites.

 

LN: How have automotive composites developed over the last 10 years?

EH: The automotive market is a very exciting market for thermoset composites. If you go back to the early 80s, there was a real boom for thermoset composites, especially in Class A applications; but  there were some challenges that arose from those applications with regards to painting and not understanding how to design properly with the materials. The automotive industry started initially to move away from thermoset composites in many those applications because of that. But I’d say in the last 10 to 15 years the industry has really done a great job of resolving those issues and now again you’ll see thermoset composites becoming really the material of choice, especially for low and mid-volume applications. This is due to the reduced tooling cost, the ability to consolidate parts and the freedom of design, when compared to metals.

LN: Carbon fiber composites are especially popular in the EV market – is that a market for IDI too?

EH: Carbon fiber composites are a much smaller market than the glass fiber market – but we see that as an opportunity. We will need to watch how it evolves though, because they are more expensive compared to existing materials. However, there are often applications where using premium product makes a business case. We continue to try to support the development of those and work with the OEM to make sure the business case is robust, and likely to provide a long term solution.

LN:  IDI has quite a diversified customer base – has that been a boon during the pandemic?

EH: It has, yes. Of course I’m still very much in contact with a lot of automotive companies and I would say what I hear from them about the impact of Covid and the current market situations, many have had a very challenging Q2 and they’re pretty far off their targets for 2020. IDI in comparison had results that were quite good because of our diversification, which has allowed IDI to continue to invest and develop new materials and new markets.

LN: What markets for thermosets might emerge or grow in the future?

EH: There is continued growth in a number of different areas, such as the traditional market of Class A body enclosures. In Europe, composite lift gates for SUVs are a growth area, while in North America there will be more of an interest in body panel closures for low to mid-volume vehicles.

In EVs as well, composite battery cases offer some really great value and features. One of the major challenges in the development of EV battery trays and covers is the need to seal them effectively from water and dust intrusion which an be tricky when using metals. When you’re welding many pieces of metal together, you’re going to constantly find leak paths.

On the other hand, a composite tray can provide structural support and a single piece or two-piece lam shell-type design can be much easier to seal. OEMs also require a certain amount of thermal performance from those battery cases to help protect occupants from a thermal run-away event and that’s an area where composites really excel.

LN: How has thermoset technology developed over the last few years?

EH: It’s always changing and developing! In some areas material appearance is important, so as a company we have been focusing on improving surface finish and reduced densities. For other materials, such as our Fortium structural composites, the goal is to improve tensile strength and tensile modulus, as well as reduce densities. The focus for our Flamevex EV battery enclosure material is improved structural properties, tensile strength, tensile modulus and also thermal runaway performance. IDI has a team of scientists that are working constantly on evolving those materials.

LN: How are you integrating sustainability in the process?

EH: We are participating in a number of collaborations focused on the circular economy for composites.  It is technically feasible to reuse resins and fibers, although it is currently not cost-effective.  IDI is happy to support these projects because it is important for us as an industry, and certainly IDI as a company.

LN: Can you tell me about your supply chain? Do you think it will be affected by Covid or has it already been affected?

EH: Yes, Covid has impacted our supply chain in a variety of different ways, either delays in getting products to customers, or a lack of resources at the supply end. However, for the most part we’ve been able to overcome that. We work closely with our customers and our suppliers to make sure we’re meeting the most critical needs when those events rise. I would say it has had an impact, but it’s something we’re working through.

LN: Do you think that things will ever get back to normal – or is it always going to be a bit different from now on?

EH: That’s a hotly debated topic, especially in the automotive industry, and transportation in general. The impact of Covid on the aerospace industry means that passenger miles have been down dramatically. Will that recover? Most people think it will. But it may shift a little bit, and certainly it’s going to take some time to get through. When you look at mass transportation as a whole, rider percentages are down dramatically. Will that come back to normal, or will consumers prefer to have their own vehicle from now on? There’s also the issue of the current infrastructure; traffic is already a issue in most major cities, and you can’t just put a lot more vehicles on the road; it’s not an option.

LN: If the consumer automotive industry becomes unreliable, what kind of markets for composites could take its place?

EH: The heavy truck and freight transportation industries use a lot of the same materials that automotive OEMs are using. For example, many of the exterior body panels on a freight truck use sheet molding compound (SMC). Composites could also be used more extensively in structural applications for those vehicles, as mass reduction becomes more important.

Another industry we’re watching is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) aka drones, particularly for the the ‘last mile’ delivery market. Now that everyone is at home and ordering products online to be delivered, this is a growing market. Those types of UAVs could require composites materials quite extensively and they could be used in very high volumes.

Another area that I think is interesting for composites is exoskeleton robotics used for lift assist, where the user can step inside the exoskeleton and use servo actuators and pneumatics to increase their lifting capacity. This could be suitable for both military applications where soldiers need to carry very heavy loads in challenging environments, and also in warehouses and manufacturing environments. The exoskeletons would help the worker to lift more, do things more comfortably and be more efficient.