Friday, December 30th, 2011
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 TrueCar.com, 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.
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.
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!