Engineering/rom Plastics Make it Possible[R], an initiative sponsored by
America’s Plastics Makers[R] through the American Chemistry Council
Over the past few decades, our cars and trucks have transformed
into technological marvels, becoming safer, cooler and more exciting to
drive, while improving fuel efficiency and sustainability.
During this march of innovation, it may not have been so noticeable
that the use of plastics has skyrocketed. Today’s cars consist of
about 50% plastics by volume. (Look around the next time you’re in
a car. Most everything you can touch is made with plastics.) But,
because plastics are typically lighter than other materials, plastics
comprise only 10% of today’s cars by weight.
Why is this important? Listen to Ford: “Few innovations
provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than
reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities -
acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency – can improve
through the use of advanced, lighter materials.”
Those “advanced” materials – such as plastics and polymer
composites, carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, 3D-printed plastic parts,
even plastic parts made from carbon dioxide – are enabling remarkable
improvements in safety, design, and performance and may usher in a whole
new era in vehicle manufacturing and sustainability.
Here’s a quick look at some interesting developments and
future plans that point to this new era:
Some automakers foresee the potential to use 3D printing to create
cars in widely distributed, smaller manufacturing facilities, using far
fewer parts. And some point to a future of rapid customization and
personalization of cars – going from unique design, computer modeling,
to building (printing) in days, not years. This new manufacturing model
may also lead to further improvements in sustainability.
While mainstream automakers already use 3D printing for rapid
prototyping to help bring cars to market faster, the race is on to build
3D-printed cars that meet both government safety standards and consumer
performance expectations. Two approaches highlight this potential
* To build its car chassis, Divergent3D starts with 3D-printed
metal “nodes” that connect to carbon fiber-reinforced plastic
structural rods in a process that looks sort of like assembling Tinker
Toys. The company claims it has “tested the strength and durability
of the chassis, and it is even stronger than current technology.”
Additional parts also are 3D printed and can be assembled in 30 minutes.
The body of Divergent3D’s prototype, the Blade Supercar, is
made of a plastic composite material, but the company says: “Since
the body is not structural, it could be made from virtually anything -
even Spandex.” The car weighs less than 1,400 pounds and goes from
zero to 60 in about 2.5 seconds.
Divergent3D envisions various companies using its technology in
widely distributed micro factories that can rapidly create customized
cars. The company claims that such manufacturing would radically reduce
the environmental footprint of auto making.
* Local Motors was the first to 3D print an electric car, called
Strati, which is made with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. The process
of 3D printing the Strati is quite efficient – it takes only a couple
days to print the body of the vehicle, which is manufactured as one
The entire car is made up of only 50 or so parts. Considering that
traditionally manufactured cars can contain tens of thousands of
painstakingly assembled parts, this points to great potential for
improved efficiency, cost savings and convenience in auto manufacturing.
Local Motors is developing additional vehicles, including the autonomous
Olli public transport vehicle (see below).
Mainstream automakers are taking notice of these manufacturing
advances. For example, in March 2017 Ford announced testing of
large-scale, 3D printing for potential application in future production
vehicles and personalized car parts. Ford noted that printed auto parts
can be lighter than traditionally manufactured parts, which can help
improve fuel efficiency. Ford: “A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance,
may weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart.”
Olli is Local Motors’ self-driving electric vehicle built with
3D printing technology that is already being used on public roads in the
Washington, D.C., area. The composite material used for the vehicle is
80% acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic and 20% carbon fiber.
Olli seats up to 12 people for a ride-sharing experience that
integrates the advanced cognitive computing capabilities of IBM Watson.
Riders hop in and ask for recommendations for dinner or a sightseeing
spot and then sit back and relax as Olli takes them there. In addition
to being lightweight and efficiently powered, many parts can be recycled
at the end of Olli’s lifespan – which means this vehicle could
represent the future of eco-friendly public transit.
Three-wheeled “cars” are nothing new … but
manufacturing them predominantly with plastics is fairly new.
Spira is a three-wheeled vehicle made mostly of a tough honeycomb
fiberglass, ABS plastic, and a thick protective layer of polypropylene
plastic foam. The manufacturer says the design offers improved safety
for the driver plus pedestrians and motorcyclists, who make up a large
proportion of vehicle deaths, especially in developing countries.
In San Diego, a Spira – made by California-based Spira4U LLC – was
struck by a hit and run driver. The Spira and driver rolled four times
after the crash. Both were scratched up, but fine. Company CEO Lon
Ballard brings that roughed up Spira to auto shows now to demonstrate
The Spira is currently available on a limited basis, but Ballard
see tremendous opportunities for use as delivery and autonomous vehicles
and in developing countries. It’s lightweight, significantly less
expensive than typical cars, powered by an electric motor, and licensed
and insured as a motorcycle. At the San Diego Auto Show, Ballard told
Plastics Make it Possible that the company is developing a similarly
built, four-wheeled car.
While the future of such a radically redesigned vehicle is
uncertain, it shines a light on the contribution of plastics to improved
vehicle safety and sustainability.
Car parts made from thin air
Ford has announced plans to make auto parts using plastics made in
part from captured carbon dioxide waste streams. Ford says the C02 will
be used as a feedstock to make foam plastics for use in seat cushions,
seat backs, floor mats, and other components such as side paneling and
Ford researchers say they were inspired by plants that take in
carbon dioxide and create complex sugars. In a similar vein, Ford is
taking excess carbon dioxide and making durable plastics to use in
vehicles. Even though ifs not sugar, the researchers said: “We
think it’s pretty sweet.”
Due to testing requirements and the time needed to scale up
production, Ford researchers expect the new biomaterials will go into
production vehicles within four years. The company plans to develop
additional plastic materials using captured carbon to contribute to
sustainability. [Note: Hear more from Ford about its use of sustainable
materials at the ANTEC show and Plasticity Forum in Anaheim in early
Of course, nobody can predict the future direction of vehicles, but
these advances reaffirm the key role plastics play in today’s cars,
making them more fuel efficient, safer and more fun to drive, all while
reducing their environmental footprint. It’s likely that plastics
will continue to play that role for the foreseeable future.
By American Chemistry Council