Materials Engineering For The Automotive Sector

materials engineering and the automotive sector

The automotive sector is looking pretty good right about now as there could be a technological revolution on the horizon. Currently, most of the big names in the automotive sector are investing in technologies to develop autonomous, connected, electric cars and those enabling shared mobility (ACES).

What some of you may not know is that there are two other strategic priorities for the automotive industry. These are sustainability and the in-vehicle experience. Thanks to advances in materials and by combining new digital technologies with traditional car manufacturing, the stage is set for more innovation within the automotive sector.

Research And Development In The Automotive Sector

At the moment, the automotive industry is third on the list of research and development expenditure, only behind healthcare, software and electronics. Some of the most successful and competitive carmakers are aware that materials engineering offer massive potential in achieving key objectives, whatever they may be.

Looking ahead, these automotive companies will more than likely turn to a range of technologies, including machine learning. This will enable them to quickly identify the right type of materials with suitable properties and help accelerate materials research.

Design engineers in the automotive sector are among the leading adopters of digital material comparison platforms. One such example is Matmatch where car manufacturers can speed up their material selection process by specifying and sourcing materials with relative ease.

Related: ‘Composite Materials For Safer, Lighter Vehicles

Emissions And Sustainability In The Automotive Sector

Today, car travel represents about 12% of the total carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union (EU). The European Parliament and Council adopted Regulation (EC) 43/2009 in 2009 which indicates the mandatory emission reduction targets for all new cars.

With that in mind, how can automotive manufacturers meet emissions targets and answer the question around sustainability? Well, the answer lies in using the right materials for the appropriate task at hand and technology can help.

Manufacturers can improve the sustainability of future vehicles by implementing a mass reduction in vehicle weight (light-weighting) which has become one of the top challenges for automotive engineers. Remember, vehicles of lower mass will not only achieve better fuel efficiency but also offer improved acceleration, braking and handling.

Materials Engineering For Bodywork

Since the early days, most car manufacturers used steel bodies to build mainly due to the relatively low cost, strength and malleability of the metal. Today, the automotive sector is incorporating several different materials in newer vehicles, including the following:

  • high-strength steels
  • aluminium
  • carbon-fibre composites
  • magnesium
  • titanium
  • various types of plastics
  • natural materials such as hemp, cotton, linen and flax

As anyone with knowledge of the automotive sector will tell you, carbon fibre is one of the most promising lightweight materials currently available for vehicle body structures. Unfortunately, the wide adoption of carbon fibre is somewhat limited as it costs up to six times more than steel and it’s harder to recycle.

One example of how different materials can help engineer a great car is the weight-bearing body structure of the new Audi A8. It incorporates aluminium, steel, magnesium alloys and carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP).

Audi R8
Image Credit: Top Gear

What About Materials For A Car Interior?

As you may be well aware, plastic is currently the most widely used material for car interiors. While companies are using more and more plastic under the bonnet and in exterior applications, the car interior still houses the most automotive plastics and this trend will likely continue in the future.

According to Fortune Business Insights, the estimated value of the automotive plastics market in 2018 was about $38.8 Billion. They predict that this figure will only get bigger reaching the $60 Billion mark by 2026.

A combination of different polymers is also used in various applications as they have low density and chemical resistance. Think of the areas in your car where plastics are used, i.e. seats, door panels, upholstery and instrument panels. It’s no surprise that plastic is still widely used as it’s extremely durable and aesthetically appealing.

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The Materials Strategy Of Tomorrow

The use of plastics will likely continue to play an important role in the material strategy for tomorrow’ cars but many manufacturers are looking at incorporating more natural fibres.

Speaking of the interior and light-weighting, a big challenge is the driver’s seat as it is one of the heaviest parts on the interior, but for good reason. It has to be ergonomic, adjustable and able to protect the driver in the event of an accident. Several car manufacturers are developing seating with a combination of materials such as carbon fibre reinforced polymer which should check all the boxes.

In addition to CFRP in seats, manufacturers are also using it in other applications including interior panels, boot lids, instrument panels and dashboards. The greatest advantages of CFRP in car interiors are as follows:

  • An extremely high strength-to-weight ratio
  • It can be worked into complex shapes
  • Good corrosion resistance
  • High-temperature tolerance

Final Thoughts

The properties of CFRP have made it a popular choice not only for the automotive sector but also in aerospace, civil engineering and military among others. However, good quality materials come at t price as these polymers are relatively expensive compared to glass fibres or plastic fibres.

Whichever way we look at it, the automotive sector is on the brink of an unprecedented digital transformation. It is modelled around the autonomous driving, electrification and the growing need for personalised products that will take the in-vehicle to the next level for all occupants.

The only way for carmakers to succeed in the competitive automotive sector is through innovation and adaptability to advances in materials engineering. For more articles covering all the latest updates in engineering, manufacturing and technology, please follow our blogs and talk to us on social media.