In a major development for the automotive materials industry, Owens Corning's Automotive Solutions Business and the Automotive Business Group of Bayer Corp. will announce a strategic alliance this month to develop advanced polyurethane/glass fiber composite technologies and accelerate their use in automotive applications.

The coalition, which will add more companies and expand outside of North America, hopes to pull together a splintered supplier network — an important and necessary task as automakers push more responsibility down the supply chain. “The introduction of more composites applications has been hindered by the fragmentation of the industry. This could be very, very explosive,” says Bill True, vice president and general manager of Owens Corning's Automotive Solutions. “In some cases you could look at some of the things we've put in press releases and say we're being too optimistic. Well, I could argue we're being too conservative. The only thing that's going to hold back growth of these applications is our ability to get the manpower and resources.”

The Automotive Composites Alliance predicts composite use will rise 34% from 350 lbs. (160 kg) per vehicle in 2001 to 467 lbs. (212 kg) by 2004. The forecast was published earlier this year, before the Owens Corning-Bayer alliance, which will pool complementary resources to develop advanced structural reaction injection molding (SRIM) and reinforced reaction injection molding (RRIM) technologies as substitutes for steel and aluminum in structural applications.

Composite use has been growing steadily since the 1990s as automakers use the lightweight material in place of heavier alternatives in efforts to improve fuel economy. Composites also are extremely durable and allow automakers to make more creative designs for niche vehicles. But despite their impressive attributes, composites have hardly taken the automotive world by storm.

The fractured supply chain has stymied efforts to get composites into production and also has affected quality in some instances. Two high-profile composite programs — the Chevrolet Silverado pickup box and Ford Thunderbird body panels — ran into surface quality issues prior to production. “In the worst case scenario, we've heard that other platforms that were thought to be done in composites are being delayed. We want composites to be a viable and risk-free choice for OEMs,” says Mr. True. “I think bringing people together and offering ‘one-stop shopping’ gives automakers the confidence to have one partner to work with and have all the elements integrated in one place.”

Martin Dawson, vice president of Bayer's Automotive Business Group, agrees. “There's no single place — center of excellence — where they can go to get all the things they need. So what we're trying to do here is bring all that technology together under a single house so that the OEMs can get all the expertise in one place. That should deliver better speed to market and higher quality parts.”

In addition to speeding up technological advancements that will enhance quality, Bayer and Owens Corning hope to make process improvements so composites can be considered for high-volume production programs. The companies view the GM composite pickup program as a stepping stone to bigger and better things with automakers. “We expect this (the pickup box) to be a huge success when it's launched commercially,” reveals Mr. Dawson. “Frankly, until we see the magnitude of that success, it's difficult to estimate just how big this market can be. We expect that particular vehicle to generate a lot of consumer interest, and a lot of industry interest.”

In order to meet the expected higher demand the companies envision other businesses joining the composites coalition and expanding beyond SRIM/RRIM parts. “As far as the SRIM part, it's uniquely Bayer. If Owens Corning wanted to work with vinyl-ester composite, we're not into that chemistry. So they would likely form an alliance with another company for that application,” Mr. Dawson explains.

Also, what will follow from a greater use of composites is the need for a big molder base, and several molding companies are expected to be involved in the Owens Corning-Bayer alliance. “The alliance infrastructure will be rather large when we're done with this,” says Mr. True.

There are plans for overseas, too. After the North American rollout, next up is Europe, which offers an interesting and challenging landscape for composite companies. While the high price of fuel there seemingly would drive automakers to use more composites to cut vehicle weight to improve fuel economy, a perceived lack of recyclability has slowed composites' growth. “SRIM is recyclable,” says Mr. Dawson. “It's not recyclable as such: You can't take a pickup box and turn it into another pickup box. But you could recycle it via another medium, either an automotive application or some other industrial application.”