Material Technology Must Keep Up with Industry Needs
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Material Technology Must Keep Up with Industry Needs

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Antonio Gozain By Antonio Gozain | Senior Journalist and Industry Analyst - Thu, 09/23/2021 - 15:18

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Across the world, mobility is adopting cleaner energy sources. But, hybrid, electric and smarter vehicles could not exist without the technological materials that make them possible. The entire supply chain must understand the specific needs and mega trends of the automotive industry, agreed industry experts.

“Players have to adapt to the mobility of the future. The mega trends are clear in the industry: lightweighting, vehicle downsizing, comfort, security and sustainability. Sensors will play a key role. A washing machine usually has 11 sensors but autonomous cars will need over 3,000. The entire sector is working to meet those changing needs,” said Juan José Zaragoza, Latin America & Mexico President of DuPont.

Developed economies have already adapted to the electrification tendencies, and both governments and OEMs have set up different short-term goals for their companies globally. Making this possible requires that the entire value chain works as a team because automakers need the correct materials to develop smart vehicles. “Communicate, collaborate and create,” said Zaragoza. “We all have to work with a collaborative mindset. I need to understand what my client needs are and adapt to them.”

Energy sources, sustainable materials and electrification receive the most attention when talking about a more sustainable automotive sector. However, other practices such as lightweighting play key roles in driving the market toward cleaner, greater energy efficiency. Lightweighting swaps traditional materials for lighter ones, reducing the amount of material used. An average light vehicle weights 1.5 tons to 1.7 tons and half a ton of that belongs to a polymer that reduces the car weight substantially, while generating a greater resistance and security, according to Zaragoza.

Technology, digitalization, sustainability goals and the pandemic have all come together to create majorly change the automotive industry, according to Luis Gonzáles, General Director at Automotive Cluster of San Luis Potosí. Every single material in the vehicle, both on its interior and exterior, will play a key role in making the industry sustainable.

Traditionally, paintings and coatings only provided cars with basic protection and decoration. Today, the industry demands much more innovation in their paints. “As the auto industry transforms, we have been innovating. Autonomous cars will need more coating. Design will change and interiors will need more intelligent and durable surfaces. Our paint has to adapt to the entire technology ecosystem,” said Adriana Macouzet, Vice President Latin America and General Manager of PPG.

The automotive paint sector has also adapted technology common to the aviation industry, which enabled cars to connect effectively and communicate with each other and the environment (roads or stop signs) in the best possible way, according to Macouzet. Technology such as Lidar sensors has been implemented massively in Mexico. These sensors use eye-safe laser beams to create a 3D representation of the surveyed environment. A lidar sensor emits pulsed light waves to the surrounding environment, which bounce back to the sensor. The device uses the time it took for each pulse to return to calculate the distance it traveled.

“We work to improve cars’ visibility. For instance, in the case of Lidar sensors, a black vehicle reflects only 6 percent of the close infrared signal that a white car would reflect, making a black car significantly less visible and less safe than a white car. We produce anti-reflect coatings and intelligent coatings that enable darker colors to have the same reflectance than clearer ones,” said Macouzet.

Innovation and smarter vehicles would not be possible without better, smarter tires. “Tires are the only part of the vehicle that touch the ground,” said Pierre-Louis Dubourdeau, President & CEO of Michelin Central America. The industry is also building state-of-the-art tech solutions for the tire industry, including connected, rechargeable and airless tires. Smarter tires will also help collect data, which is useful for telematics.

“Airless tires will bring peace and security for drivers and the possibility to improve fleet productivities. The new tires we are developing will not need maintenance and our ecological footprint will be reduced dramatically. Twenty percent of the tires thrown away are destroyed while having useful life. That percentage represents 2 million tons a year that we could avoid with our new tires,” said Dubourdeau.

Textiles are also part of the automotive supply chain. “Fabrics have to be visually attractive but easy to clean, with a long useful life. Technology brought software that allows us to keep a precise stock and serve our clients better. We have designed safer uniforms for the automotive industry employees,” said Elvia Bedolla, Plant Manager at LAVARTEX.

Keeping up with industry needs is difficult for every player involved in the value chain, according to Zaragoza. The industry is changing rapidly and adaptation is key to address the difficulties. “Innovation has its risks and challenges. Producing new materials is specially complicated and demands high investments with correct risk analyses to make them financially viable,” said Zaragoza. Innovation times have been reduced considerably in the last years, raising players’ uncertainty.

The main challenge will be to make EVs’ production truly scalable to massive production, said Macouzet. To do so, good communication between all players involved is necessary, especially considering the large initiatives and goals that OEMs have set for the future. Working on the EVs’ energy independence, lowering costs and boosting infrastructure are the main keys for the market to continue moving forward. “Our role is to become true allies of automakers for this to become a real, massive innovative production,” said Macouzet.

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