Flemming Bjöernslev
President and CEO
LANXESS North America

Hybrid Technology First Launched in Premium Vehicles

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 11:24

Flemming Bjöernslev, President and CEO of LANXESS North America, sees the collaboration between the automotive and chemical industries as a synergy of R&D. As a leading specialty chemical company, the LANXESS business segment that is most noticeably oriented to the automotive industry is performance polymers. He describes the participation process wherein an OEM will come to LANXESS with a metal piece from a previous generation car and asks to build the piece out of a lighter plastic. “The innovation comes from making that part in plastic and still meeting the same design, shape, and functionality requirements,” says Bjöernslev. “With innovations, we have had to show we are capable of meeting and surpassing the current standards of the automotive industry.”

In response to the lightweight materials trend that is sweeping through the industry, LANXESS embarked several years ago on a quest to produce hybrid technology, namely a mix of plastic compounds and metal. “With hybrid technology, the total weight of a car can be reduced by up to 30%,” says Bjöernslev. “Metal continues to be the number one material in vehicles. Many American OEMs still gravitate towards metal because they believe it to be more solid. But from a competitive standpoint and depending on the application, plastics can compete against different metals. The first challenge for the industry is to make sure that the hybrid product in the body of the car can be painted and placed in the oven afterwards.” If the hybrid contains too many different materials that expand and contract at different temperatures, the manufacturing process becomes difficult for the OEM. To overcome this barrier, Bjöernslev stresses the importance of LANXESS being involved at the early stages of the development of the parts. This allows it to show customers how the materials work under heat and cold stress. Another important factor is security, as Bjöernslev states that the assumption among OEMs is that a car is safer when it is more solid and metallic is a remnant of the 1950s. “This was erroneous, as in a crash incident, people would be squeezed and the car would remain intact. Today, cars operate differently in their crash behavior, they are often totally demolished in heavy crashes, but the cell of the vehicle remains intact. LANXESS and its partners test out hybrid materials to see how they behave in crash situations in order to analyze and adapt their products.” Combining the strong quality and safety standards backing the hybrid technology with the pressures to meet new energy efficiency standards make manufacturers eager to consider new material alternatives. The results are evident for Bjöernslev. “At the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, Ford introduced the new 2015 Ford F-150 which is 226kg lighter due to having incorporated plastics and aluminum.” The rapid expansion rate LANXESS has experienced around the world “shows that its products can successfully compete with metal,” he adds. 

The adoption of hybrid technology has been smoother with European car manufacturers, which have readily adopted the practice so that once solely metallic components, such as oil pans below the engines, are now made of high composite plastics. A prominent example that Bjöernslev offers is the latest generation of the Audi A8. “The entire front end is made out of plastic composite that has the same strength and is much lighter than the previous aluminum component,” he says. Striving to surpass the standards of hybrid technology has even made it seemingly possible to let go of metal entirely. “Porsche has introduced a brake pedal made out of LANXESS materials in all its cars, which is no longer made out of metal,” says Bjöernslev. “The reason Porsche turned to this solution is not only because it is fuel efficient and lighter, but because it is also aesthetically pleasing.”

It is a common belief in LANXESS that to successfully drive a trend forward in the automotive industry, it is better to start at the top of the luxury car segment and then move down to others. “This is obvious for certain reasons,” says Bjöernslev. “A car manufacturer wants to sell innovative products in their luxury lines at the highest price possible.” LANXESS is interested in this business model as it allows it to gain more market penetration. As for the presence of hybrid technology in the automotive industry, Bjöernslev says it depends on the variety of brands. “If Audi decides to build a certain series and LANXESS’ products are in that series, then the composite products are introduced to the Mexican market,” he explains. But as pointed out, it is not habitual for car manufacturers to first roll out innovative products in their mass produced vehicles. “Volkswagen begins with the Phaeton, which is hand-made in Germany, before moving down to the Golf.” Should premium cars become more prevalent in the Mexican automotive manufacturing, then LANXESS will be able to accelerate the roll-out of its introduction process within the country.