General Plastics Questions
How do I learn more about plastics use in automotive?
There are many sources to learn more about plastics in automotive.
The following professional organizations offer books, conference papers, videos, seminars, and more:
To follow current events in the plastics industry, check out the following publications:
SPE publishes a monthly magazine, Plastics Engineering, and the Society of Automotive Engineers publishes Automotive Engineering International Magazine monthly.
Following the links to our member companies will also fill you in on the plastics industry.
We also offer periodic seminars at the Automotive Learning Center. Join our mailing list to by completing the form in the right-hand column of this website to keep up to date on the latest information and innovations.
Our company manufactures automotive plastic parts. Can you assist me in marketing our products to your members and other U.S. automotive-related companies?
As a trade organization, we cannot promote specific products to our members. Our member companies may, however, be contacted directly through links to their websites on our site.
How do I find out what the properties of particular plastics are?
Our Resource Library contains the current edition of Plastics Digest, a publication of IPS D.A:T.A:. These volumes contain the detailed properties of plastics, including processing methods, process temperatures, melting point, and tensile strength. The volumes also contain common plastics acronyms, common terminology, and conversion factors.
What are ASTM standards and how are they used?
The American Society for Testing and Standards (ASTM), organized in 1898, has grown into one of the largest voluntary standards development systems in the world. ASTM is a not-for-profit organization that provides a forum for producers, users, ultimate consumers, and others to meet on common ground and write standards for materials, products, systems, and services. From the work of 130 volunteer standards-writing committees comprised of 31,100 technically qualified ASTM members worldwide, ASTM publishes more than 10,700 standards each year. The standards are used throughout the world.
ASTM standards are used voluntarily and become legally binding only when a government body references them in regulations, or when they are cited in a contract. The standards are used by thousands of individuals, companies, and agencies. Purchasers and sellers incorporate standards into contracts, scientists and engineers use them in laboratories, architects use them in plans, government agencies reference them in codes, regulations, and laws, and many others refer to them for guidance.
Section 8 (plastics) of the ASTM Standards is available in the Automotive Learning Center Resource Library. Find out more about ASTM on their website, www.astm.org.
What is the fatigue strength of some common plastics?
There are over 50-60 basic types of plastics, each having unique characteristics. The best way to search for fatigue life would be to narrow your application’s requirements (operating temperature, exposure to fluids, UV, cycle frequency, etc.), then investigate plastic resin properties by directly linking into the ACC’s Plastics Division Member Company Websites. Each of our member companies would be happy to help you!
What is the most basic hardness test that you use for plastics?
Since the family of plastics has over 50 to 60 basic types, not including elastomers (rubbers), there are a number of “basic hardness tests.” Determining which test to use depends on the type of plastic you are evaluating. In general, two basic types of tests are used: Rockwell Hardness and Shore Hardness. Each of these test procedures has variations, again depending on what material you are measuring, such as Rockwell C, Shore A or Shore D. Rockwell hardness tests are described in ASTM D785, Volume 8.01 Plastics. ASTM, the American Society of Testing Materials, is one of the largest standards development systems in the world. Their website is www.astm.org.
How does fiberglass compare to steel in strength?
Glass fibers are used to add tensile strength and stiffness (flexural modulus) to many plastics applications. Different lengths and diameters of glass fibers are used to impart the properties needed for particular applications. Consider, however, that you may be trying to compare “apples to oranges”. Depending on size and configuration, or reinforcing plastics, glass fibers will have different properties. In general, the properties will be high in tensile strength and stiffness, but low in impact strength (brittleness). Fiberglass also weighs considerably less than steel.
I am developing an electronic module to be sold as an aftermarket automotive product. What standards and safety regulations apply to plastics used to house an electric circuit?
All plastics used in automobiles must meet specifications to ensure that the particular part performs satisfactorily. There are specific materials specifications, usually ISO values, such as tensile strength, impact strength, flexural modulus, etc. There are also part specifications that most parts must meet, many of them established by the automotive OEM or their suppliers, or if the part/system is common enough, established as an SAE standard. All plastics must meet FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard) 302 flammability standard. Plastic boxes that hold electronic devices generally have special design criteria, particularly when it comes to electrical/electronic shielding, operating temperature, and dimensional stability.
I am investigating low volume methods of producing plastic parts for vehicles, i.e. bumpers and rear view mirror casings. Please send me information regarding methods of producing plastic parts in a quick cost-effective manner using plastics including ABS, PP and HDPE.
The primary method used to produce plastic parts, especially bumpers and rear view mirror casings, is injection molding. However, some bumper fascia (the exterior cover), are produced using thermoforming techniques. Vacuum thermoforming heats a sheet of plastic (generally an amorphous resin with a softening point) until it softens and conforms to the low-cost mold. You may be able to use this process with polypropylene or HDPE. The major production process for rear and side view mirror casings is also injection molding. In the past, many side view mirror housings were cast zinc. However, because of its higher weight and cost, plastic housings currently prevail. I am unaware of other processing methods used for mirror casings. One might use thermoforming plus secondary machining to produce an interior mirror housing. If you choose to use thermoforming, I would suggest using either PP or HDPE. The Society of Plastics Industries (SPI) is a trade association primarily composed of plastics processors and plastics processing equipment manufacturers. You may find consulting with them to be helpful in your research.
Is it more viable financially to produce parts in small volumes using thermoforming as opposed to injection molding?
In general, a thermoformed part is economical for low volumes because the cost of the mold is generally lower. The trade-off is that thermoforming a part generally takes a longer cycle time than injection molding, increasing one’s labor costs. When producing a limited number of parts thermoforming molds can be made of wood or other low cost materials. For a part as large as a bumper fascia, however, the cost of an injection molding production tool will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the injection molding machine is usually a 3500 ton press (very large!), your only option would be to thermoform the part.
Smaller parts, of course have different economics, because prototype tools for injection molding can be made at relatively low cost. I suggest you consult with a local plastics molder near your university for further advice.
Careers in Plastics
I am presently getting started in the plastic industry. Is there a call for plastic injection molders?
There are literally thousands of injection molding companies in the United States. And despite the high numbers, the vast majority of them are successful because they developed a business plan that fit both their capabilities and the particular needs of the marketplace. You may want to visit the website of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). SPI is a large trade organization comprised of plastics resin producers, processors, and plastics processing equipment manufacturers. SPI has extensive knowledge and statistics on the plastics processing industry, and should be able to provide you with another perspective on the injection molding business.
What colleges and universities offer plastics engineering degrees?
There are many colleges and universities in Michigan and the Detroit area that offer plastics engineering degrees. They include University of Michigan-Dearborn, Central Michigan University-Detroit-area Campus, Oakland University, and Ferris State University. Plastics engineering classes are also offered at Michigan State University.
I am a high school student interested in styling automobile exteriors, however, I do not know this job's official title. Could you tell me this and recommend colleges and courses that would help me excel in this career.
The job’s title is automotive stylist or automotive designer. The two premiere schools in the U.S. offering transportation design degrees are the College for Creative Studies, Detroit, MI, and the Art Center School of Design, Pasadena, CA. The Academy of Art College in San Francisco, CA, also offers a transportation design degree; also check out Car Design News, a website sponsored by the Academy of Art College. Courses you could take while in high school might include art and drawing classes, engineering classes, and computer aided design classes. Of course, doing well in these classes, while maintaining a good overall GPA will definitely be of great benefit to you as your education and career progress.
I teach middle school science. Do you know of any resources that would help in my instruction of polymer sciences?
Please visit Teaching Plastics. This interactive site contains lesson plans and background information on plastics for teachers of elementary and middle school students. Developed in conjunction with the National Middle Level Science Teachers Association (NMLSTA), the Hands on Plastics Scientific Investigation Kit is a resource to help middle school teachers answer some very basic chemistry questions about plastics.
Are all plastic products introduced in your site recycled, or can they be made from recycled material? Is the quality of the goods made from recycled material as good as those made from virgin material?
Technically, nearly all thermoplastic resins can be readily recycled. However, theory and actual practice may be in conflict in some instances. In general, for recycled plastics to be useful for new or identical applications, they need to be free of contaminants (dirt, moisture, and other solvents such as water, gasoline, oil, glycol). The questions you ask are quite complex and are being addressed by a large number of people and companies.
What is the collection infrastructure for plastic waste from car batteries?
In the United States, the collection infrastructure for end-of-life car batteries is such that over 95% of used automotive batteries are recycled for their lead, sulfuric acid, and polypropylene content. Since the recycling of lead is highly regulated, only three companies do approximately 90% of the car battery recycling. These are KW Plastics, Exide Corporation, and Resource Plastics. The polypropylene from end-of-life batteries (over 100 million pounds/yr) finds many markets, including automotive. The cost of recycling car batteries is partly covered by advanced disposal fees and/or take back fees. This is acceptable in order to ensure that the lead is properly managed, but it does help to “subsidize” the cost of the PP recycling.
What is the collection infrastructure for end-of-life plastic car bumpers?
There is little infrastructure in place at the present time in the North America for the commercial recycling of plastics from end-of-life vehicle (ELV) car bumpers. The recycling of TPO from post-industrial (pre-consumer) bumper scrap is growing both for painted and unpainted TPO. Some recycling of pre-consumer PC/PBT bumpers has been done in the past. Little recycling of PUR RIM pre-consumer bumper scrap is occurring. There appears to be excellent markets for pre-consumer, reclaimed TPO bumper scrap.
ELV car bumpers are being recycled to a very limited extent and can best be described as still at the pilot and demonstration stage. The economics to collect, sort, and process very old bumpers for their plastic content are not very favorable.
One company that is doing pre-consumer TPO bumper recycling and some post-consumer TPO bumper recycling is American Commodities, Inc. A couple of other companies are beginning to enter this business claiming to be able to address paint removal issues with proprietary technology.
On your website you mention a new revolutionary process for recycling bumpers. What is this process and what company is it available from?
At the 1998 SPE Automotive Awards in Detroit, Visteon was awarded the recycling award as the first supplier to implement a recycling program that uses painted TPO scrap to produce new bumper fascias. Collected from salvage yards, the reclaimed material is reused in production at blends ranging from 20 to 100 percent. Post-industrial recycled TPO has been tested extensively by Visteon engineers to ensure that it maintains bumper durability, performance and appearance. Tests revealed that post-industrial recycled TPO performs exactly like virgin material with additional benefits of helping to protect the environment and save money. Visteon is now recycling one million pounds of painted TPO parts a year, saving $250,000 in new material and landfill disposal costs as well as tons of plastic formerly destined for landfills. Visteon projects that the innovative process will enable the benefits to increase fourfold in 1999 and eventually lead to the elimination of landfill disposal of TPO fascia all together. (Source: SPE Automotive Division).
I am looking for companies that are interested in purchasing scrap rubber and plastic automobile bumpers, providing a means of shredding the material, or want the shredded material.
How is the automotive industry addressing the increased use of plastics in automobiles, and end-of-life auto recycling?
The question you ask is one that is engaging many scientists and engineers in the automotive and plastics industries. In the U.S., the Plastics Division of ACC collaborates with the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), which is sponsored by USCar, a consortium of the “Big Three” U.S. automakers and the U.S. government. For over 5 years the VRP has supported and conducted research to develop plastics recycling technologies for end-of-life vehicles with the goal of developing economically sustainable technologies. So far, some of the plastics separation technologies look promising while others do not. However, both dismantling techniques and plastics identification and separation technologies continue to be evaluated.
To put automotive plastics recycling in perspective, consider the following:
- Automotive plastics have contributed to reducing the weight of automobiles by 500 to 750 pounds, depending on the vehicle. A rough rule of thumb is that a 10% reduction in weight improves gas mileage by about 6%. Thus, the use of plastics (about 257 lbs/vehicle) significantly improves mileage, reducing greenhouse gases.
- Over 85% of the energy consumed during the life of a vehicle occurs during its useful life (gas, oil, maintenance). So weight reduction brought about by using plastics significantly reduces the total energy consumption of a vehicle.
- Automotive plastics make up about 0.5% by weight of a landfill. Despite this low number, automotive and plastic companies are striving to reduce that amount.
Which polymers are recyclable, which aren't and why? What are the major factors that contribute to the cost of recycling polymers?
There are about 39 different types of basic plastics used to make an automobile today. About 75% of the plastic (by weight) is supplied by about 10 of these plastics. All the polymers are technically capable of being recycled; however, in the vast majority of cases, the cost to separate and clean each polymer costs much more than purchasing new virgin plastic. Automakers and the Plastics Division of ACC have been working for many years to develop economically viable ways to recycle automotive plastics. New technologies are being implemented that recycle bumper fascias and other large parts. Also, over 95% of battery cases are recycled—mainly because of federal requirements to recover the lead.
Automakers are increasingly requiring recycled content in its auto parts, both in metal and plastics. However, they will not pay higher prices for recycled plastics.
To put things in perspective, the greatest values plastics bring to automobiles are their lightweight characteristics and their potential for part consolidation. Since about 85% of the energy consumed during a car’s life occurs during its use phase, the lightweight plastics significantly improve gas mileage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
How many miles does a typical car have to be driven so that the gasoline saved by weight reduction through plastics is equivalent to all the plastics in the car?
A typical North American car weighs about 3200 pounds, which includes about 250 pounds of plastic. Every pound of plastic on a car replaced 2 to 3 pounds of another material. (Therefore, without plastic, a car would weigh from 3450 to 3700 lb.) A conservative rule of thumb is that a 10% reduction in weight yields a 6% improvement in gas mileage. You can use this “rule” in combination with the CAFE mileage standards to calculate how much gas is saved, since all car and light truck fleets are pushing the limit of the CAFE mileage limits.
Plastics and Life Cycle Analysis
How many gallons of crude oil are needed for one pound of plastic?
There are some really interesting facts from a European study related to plastics and petroleum usage: 3.7 billion pounds of plastics were used in Western European automobile production. It took 7.2 billion pounds of oil to make the plastic. It is estimated that 26 billion pounds of oil are saved each year through fuel efficiencies from lightweight plastic components—leading to a subsequent reduction in CO2 emissions of 66 billion pounds per year! The bottom line: Almost 4 times as much oil is saved each year than it takes to produce the plastics in the first place! And the energy value of plastics can still be used at the end of the auto’s useful life.
What are the advantages of foamed plastic bumper bars to the manufacturer and the motorist?
Front and rear bumper systems are designed for aesthetics; aerodynamics—which help improve gas mileage by reducing wind resistance—and, most importantly, energy management in case of a front/rear collision.
Today, the front and rear bumper fascias of nearly all vehicles are made of plastic. Its light weight, improves gas mileage, and only plastic can be molded into the complex shapes demanded by today’s styling.
The energy management foam that is located between the fascia and the bumper beam provides a crush zone that dissipates a significant amount of energy prior to energy being transferred through the bumper beam itself. This type of bumper system is designed to meet federal 5 mph low energy crashes without causing significant damage to the vehicle.
These bumper systems are costly for the car manufacturer but result in a safer vehicle that will be less costly to repair in the event of a low energy crash. In fact, auto manufacturers design cars and provide multiple safety devices to protect the driver and passenger in the event of a crash. Bumper systems are an important part of the safety design of a car—and plastics play an important part in that design.