Friday, December 30th, 2011

U.S. Automakers’ Upbeat 2011 Is Sweet Music for Plastics Industry

The U.S. auto industry will close strong for the year 2011, with vehicle sales expected to reach nearly 12.8 million. That’s up from about 11.8 million in 2010 and 10.6 million for ’09 – a year we would prefer to forget.

Auto industry analysts are saying that car buyers in the USA are once again feeling OK about making larger purchases, despite continued uncertainty in the overall economy. Recently, Jesse Toprak, chief industry analyst for auto-pricing website, described that as a big behavioral change from ‘08 and ’09 and called it good for the industry.

How good? Good enough that a number of industry forecasts are projecting that vehicle sales could reach around 13.8 million in 2012 – barring, of course negative impact from a double-dip domestic recession, Europe’s debt crisis, a slowed Chinese economy, some combination of those, or something no one is talking about as yet.

Some perspective lest we get starry-eyed: Prior to the Great Recession the U.S. had peak vehicle sales years of around 16-million units. Sobering. And back then the auto sector was one of the two biggest market application sectors for the U.S. plastics industry, the other being packaging. Those two markets are still the biggest customers for the plastics industry, and it’s not surprising that the auto sector also is slimmer than in its pre-recession years.

It was nearly impossible for a supplier not to be squeezed when a major customer is forced to contract. Lately, however, both automakers and their plastics industry supply chain have regained stability, and they are moving forward together again.

The basic reasons why this marriage endures have not changed. Plastics give vehicle designers and manufacturers multiple options for achieving dramatic and brand-differentiating shapes, colors, and surfaces; the ability to combine functions in a single part; plus design-for-manufacturing (DFM) and design-for-assembly (DFA) procedures that ensure efficient manufacturing.

By 2015, says LMC Automotive, hybrids like the new Ford C-Max will be 6.4% of the U.S. auto market, versus less than 3% today.

However, perhaps the single most basic reason automakers have favored plastics is now more important than ever. The high strength-to-weight ratio of plastics permits replacing metal and glass with plastics that reduce overall vehicle weight. Less weight correlates directly to improved fuel efficiency, thus positioning plastics beautifully for the new designs of electric and hybrid vehicles.

One look at BMW’s recently unveiled i3 (all electric) and i8 (hybrid) cars, each featuring CFRP (carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic) body panels, offers a striking vision of plastics’ automotive future – and that future has arrived.

BMW i8 Hybrid is a star

The BMW i8 hybrid’s composite plastic body panels are the real stars (sorry Tom Cruise) of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

So yes, 2012 looks to be a good year for U.S. automakers, domestic and foreign brands, as well as for their

creative partner suppliers in the plastics industry. For what they have each been through in the last few rough years, both automakers and plastics suppliers have more than earned some good times.

Here is wishing all of us a healthy and prosperous 2012!

2 Responses to “U.S. Automakers’ Upbeat 2011 Is Sweet Music for Plastics Industry”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. DFM and DFA is the key area for all plastic components suppliers. More the variants, difficult to manage such a big supply chain with support and even service! With global supply chain it is getting more complex and challenging to support new models and short ‘time to market’. Costlier fuel, pressure to reduce weight for making cars more fuel efficient would mean taking out metal and adding more ‘plastic’ in the whole design process.

    Very interesting article!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Prashant. I can see from your website why you are keen on DFM and DFA. It is amazing what computer software can tell manufacturers at the start of a project that will allow them to avoid the unpleasant surprises that can happen later. Indeed, adding more plastic can help automobile design very much, and if it is added using DFM and DFA, the improvements will be faster and more efficient. Good luck to you and your company in helping to make that a “normal” part of product development. – Rob Neilley

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