The European Commission’s latest economic forecast is sobering reading for anyone who thinks the euro-zone economy is turning the corner [Quartz].
CLEAR TRENDS AHEAD ?
Its not all gloom and doom. The 2014 outlook is better. One forward-looking indicator which is the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) is above the 50 mark (the level that suggests economic expansion) for the fourth month running. German factory orders rose much faster than expected, Spain foresees a broader uptick in consumer spending. British indicators added to evidence that the UK is spearheading Europe’s recovery from recession [Reuters]. Latest figures show that the US economy grew at annual pace of 2.8% in Q3 – a growth rate that was faster than expected compared to 2.5% in Q2 [BBC News].
All signs point to a gradual global recovery with consistently high growth from 2015.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS – VALIDATION
Multi-axial fabrics have been the driving force for more than a decade in pushing the performance level of composites. The most recent development is the 3D weaving process for manufacturing high performance carbon fiber composites. A new 3D weaving loom to produce prototype 3D fabrics has been commissioned at Belfast; wherein preforms can be woven in a variety of widths, thicknesses, patterns, shapes and strengths [Plastics & Rubber Weekly]. Research has shown that the 3D composite has significantly better performance, including 15% higher fatigue properties and a crack propagation value up to 20 times higher than 2D reinforced epoxy laminates.
For a 3D orthogonal carbon fiber weave, geometrical parameters characterizing the unit cell have been quantified using micro-computed Tomography and image analysis. Novel procedures for generation of unit cell modes, reflecting systematic local variations in yarn paths and yarn cross-sections and discretization into voxels for numerical analysis have been implemented. Resin flow during reinforcement impregnation can be simulated using computational fluid dynamics to predict the in-plane permeability. A significant effect of the binder configuration at the fabric surface on permeability was observed, which is to be expected. In-plane tensile properties of composites predicted using mechanical finite element analysis showed good quantitative agreement with experimental results. Accurate modeling of fabric surface layers predicted a reduction of the composite strength, specifically in the direction of yarns with crimp caused by compression at binder cross-over points [Sciencia].
The ability to predict mechanical properties and behavior of composites using fabrics has been a salient feature in recent times – designers continue to play a prominent role in facilitating such modeling and simulation before commercial production.
POLYAMIDE TO POLYPROPYLENE
Glass fiber reinforced polyamide (PA) has generally been the material of choice for air intake manifolds in automobiles. Continuous technological developments in tailoring highly engineered polypropylene (PP) compounds to required stiffness aspects has resulted in Volkswagen being the first automaker to switch from PA to short glass fiber reinforced PP for this application. Benefits include a 15% weight saving, superior acoustic performance and greater production cost efficiency. More short and long glass fiber reinforced PP are now being used in instrument panel carriers, front-end modules and under-the-hood applications [Plastics Today]. Borealis has opened a new long glass fiber reinforced PP plant in Italy that uses pultrusion to achieve increased fiber length in both pellets and parts. The glass fibers are typically arranged parallel in the pellets, all having the same length as the pellet itself.
CFRP MAKING INROADS
It keeps getting better… I mean the reduction in cycle time when processing CFRP for automotive applications. A recent demonstration of a production-line-ready-carbon fiber reinforced roof shell with a polyurethane (PU) matrix says it all. The component can be used as-is or painted straight away as the fiber structure is not visible on the surface. The Class A surface finish is assured through adoption of a two-stage production process [Plastics Today]. Firstly a carbon fiber preform is robotically placed in a RTM compression molding tool and impregnated with PU resin. The 2mm thick semi-finished part is then robotically transferred to a second RTM compression molding station where a 0.2 mm aliphatic polyurethane UV-stable coating is applied. The part is then trimmed to its final shape. Overall fiber content is around 50%. The PU for both the part core and surface is poured in when the mold is slightly open (compression RTM). This results in very low flow resistance which allows injection of the PU system with high pour rates. The mold is then closed. The process not only improves fiber wetting, but also prevents fibers from moving around [Krauss Mafffei].
This adds to the growing list of successful synergistic commercial developments in the automotive sector between auto, fiber, resin and machinery producers, especially in CFRP.
INTEGRATION – BENEFITS
In one of my earlier posts, I had mentioned the experimental introduction of polycarbonate (PC) in lieu of traditional glass in automobiles. SABIC‘s glazing technology to protect the plastic and ensure PC meets safety and performance requirements has met success in sunroof systems especially in Europe and is now making its debut on side windows of the Volkswagen AG’s XL1 high-efficiency hybrid car that also touts a CFRP body. The unconventional design has a streamlined shape to improve the car’s aerodynamics. It is the first vehicle to feature advanced plasma coating on two-component injection-molded PC windows. The side windows are 33% lighter than conventional glass and can still roll down – making it the first PC, roll down, moving windows used in the auto industry. SABIC is also showcasing a long glass fiber (GF) reinforced PP for the tailgate which is 30% lighter along with long GF reinforced PBT for structural components. System integration has resulted in a weight saving of almost 12 kgs [Plastics News].
The fracking technique success in the US to extract gas and oil from shale has caught the attention Down Under. An Australian company announced successful gas flows from a horizontal fracked well [Shale Gas Now]. The US energy drilling boom is revolutionizing the niche market for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Analysts opine that North America will vie with the Middle East as the world’s top supply region this year and in 2014 at average daily production rates of around 2 million barrels per day. Of the anticipated US LPG surplus of nearly 350,000 barrels per day by 2015, about 110,000 barrels per day could reach Asian markets. This game-changing development will redraw global LPG trade flows and force Middle Eastern LPG exporters to lower prices [Trade Arabia]. Mammoth LPG export terminals are being built in the US.
The PE/PP market dynamics will witness a major shift in the next five years consequent to the shale gas revolution and the US slowly becoming a net exporter rather than importer (as has been the case till earlier this year). Crude oil prices, barring geo-political issues, could well be heading south in the coming years, thanks to the abundance of natural gas.
An unique non-woven fabric that helps solve car makers’ needs to improve acoustics and reduce weight without breaking the bank, is making waves. Based on the “physics of acoustics “, the technique focuses on two dominant properties of part design – thickness and resistance to airflow. As sound moves through air in waves of minute pressure variations, the solution has to work for long wavelengths (low frequency) and short wavelengths (high frequency). The thickness of the existing insulation layer determines what low frequency wavelengths can be absorbed. The new non-woven material replaces the traditional black scrim on the surface and controls the mid and high frequency wave length by managing the sound pressure level variations and trapping the energy in the insulation layer of the part. This makes the composite more efficient than just the homogeneous insulation material by itself [Innovation in Textiles]. In a recently launched automotive hood liner, weight saving of almost 950 grams/ sq meter (>2lbs/sq meter) was achieved with this non-woven fabric – the acoustics stayed the same, there was cost reduction generated in the raw material line, and additional improvements in manufacturing related to shorter cycle times required to mold a 600gsm glass fiber part as compared a 1,600gsm part [Nexus].
The addition of nanoparticles to polymeric matrices has shown great promise for improving mechanical and thermal properties – however, this improvement comes with a decrease of processability. In a typical case, two different forms of glass fiber – one a bi-axial fabric and the other an uni-directional glass fiber mat were sprayed with carbon nanofibers on both sides. Mechanical properties of composites produces by vacuum-assisted RTM were obtained. Permeability, as a measure of of processability of the sprayed glass fiber mats, were measured. While there was an increase in mechanical properties, permeability was found to diminish with addition of carbon nanofibers [Sciencia].
Combining injection and compression molding to achieve weight reductions of up to 50% in automobiles? Could be a commercial reality, per Daimler. Pressed components allow a marked reduction in weight, whilst injection molded components enable the incorporation of ribs to ensure the necessary stability and strength as well as opening up a broad scope for shaping to enable realization of different components. In the new process, ribs and attachment points are injected directly into the pressed carrier while still hot. The starting material for the carrier takes the form of hybrid bonded fiber fabrics consisting of thermoplastic and reinforcing fibers. Use of the same materials for the bonded fiber fabric and the injection molding process results in an optimum bond. The technology enables simple functional integration and thin wall thicknesses. Interior weight savings of up to 5kg per vehicle can be reportedly achieved with this technology. The weight reduction is accompanied by reduced material input – consequently, reduction in CO2 emissions from the component manufacturing process. Compared to the compression molding process, costs can be reduced by up to 10 %. Further, components can be produced without any increase in costs compared to the injection molding process due to reduced material input and use of suitable materials. The first parts for pillar and door trims with this technology goes into series production in one of the next Mercedes-Benz model lines [Plastics Today].
POWER SHIFT TO NATURAL GAS
Natural gas powered trucks and vehicles (at the expense of diesel) is on the increase in the US. At Walt Disney’s Disneyland in California, the year round guest transportation services to and from theme parks, shopping, dining and parking areas features eco-friendly buses powered by cheap, abundant clean American natural gas. One company alone has built more than 400 natural gas refueling stations in the US [Motley Fool]. Ford’s recent announcement that its customers will be able to get the F-150 truck factory equipped to run on either natural gas or gasoline is symbolic of the increase reliance on (less expensive) natural gas. United Parcel Service is projected to control the most extensive Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fleet by the end of 2014. Currently, the US estimated cost/gallon of diesel is $3.78, gasoline $3.28, CNG $2.28 and LNG $ 2.50. Home retailer Lowe’s is well on its way to replace all diesel powered fleet with natural gas trucks by 2018.
About 5% of all heavy duty trucks sold in 2014 will run on natural gas – up from 1% this year.
The success of fracking in the US has resulted in an abundance of natural gas. The UK and Australia have also been successful in exploiting the technology, with more countries likely to follow suit. The direct impact is use of natural gas derived ethane as feedstock (rather than crude oil) for cracking to yield ethylene. There is bound to be a major shift in polyolefins price and availability.
The dependence on crude oil is likely to be marginalized in the next five years. It is not without reason that oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi are already implementing plans in moving away from oil dependence by creating Special Economic Zones for mega infrastructure projects (water desalination plants in Saudi being a prime example) and industrial parks (Plastics Cluster in Abu Dhabi – one of the world’s largest industrial parks dedicated to plastics conversion).
INVESTMENT & FORESIGHT
A few glass fiber producers have already announced price hikes. Resin producers did so in Q3. Platinum and rhodium prices are attractive enough to warrant investment in capacity expansion of glass fiber plants. With the Dreamliner and Airbus A350 ramping up commercial production, aerospace grade carbon fiber is also poised to find stability in pricing (as in the past).
2014 should be a good year for fiber and resin producers alike and for the composites industry at large.
In view of the holiday season in December, our next post will be published in early January 2014.