As bioproducts replace petroleum-based products repair methods will change

Jan. 1, 2020
These new materials that are being used by automakers have the potential to change how techs repair and source parts.

By now, you've probably read a number of articles about repairing ultra high-strength steel and high-strength steel (HSS). You might have even attended a Collision Industry Conference meeting and witnessed industry advocate Toby Chess demonstrate how difficult it is to cut through these steels while describing how parts containing them must be repaired according to OEM guidelines to ensure vehicle safety.

Automotive parts made from plant-based materials have been in design and production for years. These soy foam seats are in a 2007 Ford MKR concept vehicle. (IMAGES / FORD)

Fortunately, the message about these protective, weight-saving steels has penetrated most of the industry. Any repairer worth his salt knows to refer to OEM guidelines to identify and repair these steels. Estimating systems have improved how they address these issues. Many repairers say they feel comfortable working with these materials – as they do with other materials, including aluminum and new alloys that are used more frequently in vehicle parts.

Those who fall into this category shouldn't become too comfortable because manufacturers will soon begin to introduce – and, in some cases, already have brought to market – a host of innovative materials in their vehicles. These materials have the potential to change how techs repair and source parts.

Background for change

During the past decade of the 20th century, the world witnessed two momentous events that continue to impact the automotive industry. India joined China as also having a population that passed the 1 billion mark, and China completely evolved into an economic powerhouse. These events helped drive an explosive increase in the global demand for raw materials, especially petroleum, forcing manufacturers in several industries to look for new material sources.

The kenaf plant is proving itself to be a useful ingredient in bio-based plastic.

The focus of the search was for renewable sources manufacturers could re-resource continually to avoid potential shortages and environmental issues surrounding pollution and environmental impact. During their search, auto manufacturers faced unique challenges. Any new materials they adopted also would have to meet stringent safety and fuel efficiency standards. As with HSS, they'd need to be strong, light, and affordable.

OEMs found answers from two unlikely sources – botanists and farmers – and began moving into a manufacturing paradigm in which they're looking to grow many of their products, especially those the collision industry will be repairing or replacing. These plant-based products, or bioproducts, are intended to replace petroleum-based ones. Ford, which is investigating revolutionary bioproduct technology and helping bring it to market, has been at the forefront of this movement.

Mushroom protection and a return to wooden automobiles

Ford recently began collaborating with Evocative Design, a Green Island, N.Y.-based start-up company, to develop biodegradable foam made from mushrooms. Ford wants to use the foam in dashboards, side doors and, perhaps most significantly, bumpers.

Evocative Design's biofoam producing process uses mycelium, the branching fibers from a mushroom's root system. The process transforms mycelium into a strong binding agent applied to other organic materials such as oat husks and corn. The compound is placed in trays that serve as molds for different auto parts.

The mycelium still lives during the process as it intertwines with the organic material in the molds for five days. When the five days have ended, heat is applied to the organic forms, which then dry into sturdy, lightweight, fireproof and waterproof automotive components. If the Ford/Evocative Design collaboration works, vehicles, or large parts of them, could end up in compost heaps instead of landfills.

Along with fungus, Ford is finding new uses for wood, specifically liquid wood. Made from virgin or waste wood, liquid wood can be molded into different shapes and is practically carbon neutral, according to Ford, which is eyeing liquid wood to create parts in a vehicle's interior and engine compartment.

In kenaf we trust

While mushrooms and liquid-wood-based parts remain on the drawing board, Ford and other automakers such as Toyota have begun using parts fashioned from kenaf plant fiber.

Kenaf is related to hibiscus, cotton and okra. While it's native to Africa, the plant is adapted to grow in parts of California and the southern United States. Kenaf grows between 8 and 20 feet tall and matures in 150 days. Unlike cotton, it requires few pesticides.

When kenaf is blended with polypropylene in a 50-50 mixture, it reduces the weight of a door component 25 percent. Ford's use of the plant also will offset 300,000 pounds of oil-based resins annually in North America.

Ford is using kenaf-based parts most prominently in its 2012 Escape, which incorporates kenaf-based door bolsters. (The Escape also will feature soy foam in the seats and head restraints.) More than 2 million vehicles in Ford's fleet already use biobased kenaf foam, which reduces petroleum oil use 680 tons. The company also plans to use the foam in its entire fleet, which is using other bioproduct materials such as wheat straw used as plastic filler in the third-row plastic bins on the 2010 Ford Flex.

More on the way

For years auto manufacturers have toyed with bioproducts, most of which never made it to market or appeared only for a short time because of price and accessibility constraints. Industry experts, who don't expect this trend to continue, say bioproducts are entrenched firmly in auto production and their use should increase significantly. Bioproduct technology has advanced to a point where OEMs have found these products as affordable or competitive as their petroleum-based counterparts, according to Morton Balsam, an auto industry and environmental impact analyst.

"They're making their way into vehicle interiors," Balsam says. "Following industry projections and what we've seen with plastics in the past, we don't expect automakers to stop there. You don't need to go back that many decades to see a time when everything in a vehicle was metal. Manufacturers began introducing plastics in the interior. From there, we've seen an explosion in plastics appearing everywhere else in a car, from support pieces to large structural forms and bumpers."

Even high-end vehicles have been using plastics for years.

"All we're seeing now is plastic created a new way," Balsam says. "Based on market projections, prices should drop further as other industries adopt plant-based plastics. You can bet automakers will make every use of this material. What we're seeing now probably is the trickle before the flood of these parts."

Repair and industry issues

What will this flood of bioproducts mean for repairers and the rest of the industry?

Balsam doesn't envision any immediate concerns. Plastic is plastic, and repairers will source and replace these parts as they have for years, although it might take the aftermarket some time to catch up, he says. Recyclers could be impacted if these products turn out to be more easily composted and cheap enough to be purchased new instead of used. The biggest challenge short term might be determining if bioproduct plastics can be repaired or should be replaced.

"There might be issues with how they react to certain resins, which means they might not be candidates for patches or other small repairs," Balsam says. "We'll also have to see how they react in an accident. They could provide plenty of structural support but in doing so suffer extensive damage. They might need to be replaced more often than products made from other plastics."

The most significant impact these materials could have is on design, according to Balsam. Biotechnology could eventually produce large structural parts that would eliminate designs that incorporate many smaller pieces bolted or parsed together.

"For years, automotive designers and engineers have dreamt of producing vehicles with fewer component parts," Balsam says. "Now we're talking about materials that could be lightweight and strong, that could economically produce large pieces, making product and manufacturing simpler. We could see a new design model in which it's more attractive for the industry to produce vehicles en masse and worry less about selling parts later. We might be looking at vehicles that largely are disposable. Some day, it could be cheaper to replace them than repair them."

Such a day is far off most likely, if it happens at all. Still, talk already has begun in the auto industry of such a development. As automakers look to operate with less environmental impact and more cost effectiveness, such a development is attractive. Repairers might want to keep this in mind as OEMs look to grow their business in a whole new way.