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More plastic can decrease a car’s weight

London-area project centre aims to expand its use in car parts

Published November 16, 2012

Ever heard of the Fraunhofer Project Centre?

I didn’t think so. It’s still a bit of a secret — one of several little-publicized prospects for creating jobs and a greener car industry in Ontario.

Here’s the story:

Carmakers are shaving weight from their vehicles to meet new fuel-efficiency rules.

So far, aluminum and high-strength steel dominate the effort. But composites — plastics — are gaining. They’re stronger and lighter than metals, and can be quickly formed into complex shapes for better design and easier assembly.

They’re already used in instrument panels, trim and other parts that don’t bear loads. The aim of the Fraunhofer Centre, which officially opened this month, is to expand their use in structural and other components.

The centre is at a new technology park in London’s east end, just north of Hwy. 401 and a couple of hours by highway from assembly plants around Detroit and the GTA.

The aim is to make it North America’s hub for developing and making plastic car parts.

It’s a joint venture between the University of Western Ontario and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology. The institute is a major player in Europe — part of a non-profit society that works with universities and manufacturers to convert research ideas into commercial products.

Several years ago, industry people asked Fraunhofer to set up shop in North America, to reduce their travel costs and also focus on this continent’s raw materials and market demands — both different from Europe’s.

Facing roadblocks in the United States, the institute turned to Canada, where the federal and Ontario governments, London and Western welcomed it with open arms — and nearly $30 million in cash and land.

The Project Centre is filled with massive machines like those already used in Germany to produce plastics and form them into parts, says Tobias Potyra, who moved to London from the institute as operations manager. “It’s unique in North America … we see ourselves as a North American centre.”

Europe’s experience can’t be directly duplicated here.

For one thing, our cars are bigger, which means parts will be designed much differently to ensure they’ll do the job.

To picture why, compare a material sufficient for a metre-long bookshelf with what’s needed so a three-metre shelf won’t sag. The same principle applies to plastic car parts, in a complicated way.

The materials consist of glass or carbon fibre strands embedded, in various patterns, in resins. They go through processes that produce two basic categories — thermoplastics and thermosets. They’re then formed into desired shapes under heat and pressure.

You know from the outset how any metal will perform, Potyra says. But the properties of plastics “are created in the manufacturing process.” They change depending on the chemicals used, the temperature and pressure applied, and how the fibres are aligned. Using these materials demands a thorough understanding of them and absolute precision as they’re made.

While this makes things trickier, it also means it’s possible to create the exact properties — strength, thickness, stability, flexibility, finish — that a part requires.

Thermoplastic “creeps” or elongates over time — potential disaster in a structural part. But parts can be made stable by aligning the fibres exactly along their length.

Thermosets can have a smooth, flawless surface, ideal for exterior parts. Thermoplastics produce thin, strong sheets suitable for underbody shields.

Since plastics can be formed into complex shapes, each piece could incorporate several components that now must be made separately and joined.

The centre’s goal is to attract manufacturers to London, with plastics companies feeding material to parts makers at the same location. Officials say they’re already working with several carmakers: One project involves powertrain components.

This is potentially great news on the road to greener cars. Next week, another discovery.

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