by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Decorating
December ended on a high note for US automakers as the year closed with a new domestic sales record for 2015. A Reuters Market update by Bernie Woodall, dated Jan. 5, 2016, reported, “For full year 2015, US sales hit a record of 17.47 million vehicles, breaking the mark of 17.41 million vehicles in 2000, according to Autodata Corp. Low gasoline prices, easy credit and moderate economic growth boosted the industry. WardsAuto, which provides data used by the US government for economic analysis, said 2015 sales set a record at 17.39 million vehicles sold, breaking the 2000 mark of 17.35 million.”
With indicators pointing to a continuation of these sales levels, OEMs are focused on retaining – or gaining – market share by satisfying consumer demand for vehicles that are much more than a mode of transportation. Functionality extends beyond drivability and gas mileage to include advanced safety features and communication technologies. Aesthetics are pushed far past color and comfort, and automotive interiors now feature touchscreen panels and ambient lighting that enhance the customer experience.
With an all-in-one mindset, consumers are looking for vehicles that not only function, but integrate into their daily lives. This is a far cry from Henry Ford’s original vision and adds complexity for those involved in the manufacture and decoration of interior and exterior automobile components.
Consumers ask for more from their vehicles
When Ford began rolling the Model T off the production line in 1908, consumers were enticed by the ability to move from one place to another in a more efficient and slightly faster method than that provided by horse and carriage. Ford kept prices low and the Model T affordable by standardizing every aspect of production and refusing to modify the base vehicle. The well-known jest was that Ford’s Model T was available in any color desired as long as the customer wanted black. Today’s consumers are asking for much more from their transportation, from increased safety features and integrated smart-device connectivity to more luxurious appearances.
“Today’s consumers are no longer satisfied with a standardized product,” explained Laurie Harbour, president and CEO of Harbour Results, Inc., a leading business and operational consultant firm for the manufacturing industry. “They are looking for something tailored to meet their styling preferences and functional demands. From cellphones to washing machines to cars, this demand for customization is driving increased complexity into the manufacturing value stream. And, this is resulting in increased manufacturing costs.”
Harbour pointed to data that shows automakers will launch an unprecedented number of models in North America from 2017 through 2019 – more than 125. “As automakers look to differentiate vehicles and appeal to a variety of audiences, they are developing multiple variants of a single model,” Harbour said. “From 2015 to 2018, the number of North American models in production will jump 18 percent, from 243 to 287. In that same time period, the number of models under 100,000 units will increase 21 percent. This translates to more than 800 trim levels on the road by 2018. Each trim level requires unique tooling, which significantly impacts overall vehicle manufacturing costs and puts pressure on vehicle profitability.”
That pricing pressure does more than trickle through the manufacturing pipeline – it slams downstream with force that impacts those building tooling, molding the automotive components and performing secondary operations to enhance vehicle appearance and functionality to satisfy consumer demands.
Automotive finishes integrate luxury, technology
According to Product Development Technologies’ (PDT) 2015 Automotive Trends Report, “While manufacturers maintain control of key foundation elements, most everything else is up for grabs so long as the customer is willing to pay for the privilege.” Higher end vehicles are implementing patterned interior dash elements, mood lighting and exotic grills – and mid-range vehicles are scrambling to imitate as consumers show their approval of the increased options through their willingness to pay for those upgrades.
Paul A. Uglum is a technology advocate, fabrication engineering, for Delphi, a global technology company for automotive and commercial vehicle markets delivering solutions that help make vehicles safe, green and connected. Working primarily in automotive electronics – including user interface elements such as seat switches, instrument clusters, roof modules and the center stack – Uglum has seen a general trend toward more sophisticated products. “Automotive interiors are using paint, leather, leather wraps, applied wood and skinovers with soft-feel materials, and this applies to the electronics as well,” Uglum said.
Touchscreens and capacitive sensing
“OEMs are using different partitioning of their products,” Uglum explained. “What used to be a radio that was installed into a dash now is an electronics package with a front end that may be a flat panel with capacitive sensing. Delphi has launched several vehicles with a touchscreen panel. The trend is in combinations of interactive touchscreens and conventional button and knob controls.” Touchscreen panels received attention during January’s 2016 Detroit Auto Show, featuring prominently in the Buick Avista concept car, which was awarded the Eyes On Design Award for “Design Excellence – Concept Car,” partially on the strength of its touchscreen integration.
Another trend is the use of capacitive switches instead of traditional buttons. Capacitive sense technology can sense touch through the plastic of the backlit lens. “The lens itself is really interesting and has become a design feature,” Uglum said. “The Europeans like to use actual glass, which means utilizing a chemically strengthened glass to meet impact requirements. The Japanese like to use lasercut or diecut plastic, usually with a UV coating to prevent scratches. In-mold decorating for the lens so the vehicle has some curvature also is entering the marketplace, but that poses difficulties, too, and UV hardcoat and anti-reflective coatings usually are required.”
Hidden-til-lit components are becoming more popular, according to Uglum. A shiny black or silver metallic front hides information from the vehicle occupants until the device is turned on. “Chrome that can be backlit is becoming more popular, including some large pieces,” he said. “Chrome bars have been added on the sides to provide ambient lighting in some vehicles, and that process can be done through hydrographics or physical vapor deposition. This makes plastic design and decoration more complex.”
In-mold decorating is gaining market share with the trends in increased customization, and it’s incorporating natural materials. “Some center stacks have an actual wood feature that was laminated to the plastic, which can be done both in-mold and post-mold,” said Uglum. Some vehicles include real metal inserts and, at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show, Bentley introduced a stone veneer option for interior trim.
Piano black and coatings
Post-molding processes, in general, are gaining in volume. Piano black continues to be a desired color choice for automotive interiors, according to Uglum, both in in-mold decorated and backpainted plastic, but its appearance leads to aesthetic issues that require secondary operations. “It scratches easily, so that leads to an increased use of UV coatings,” he explained. “The parts we’re making for some European customers are all piano black with a UV coating over the top for durability.”
Specialty optical coatings are a definite design trend, and anti-glare, anti-fingerprint and anti-reflective coatings are common. These are used to improve the quality of the image, which makes the coating a functional decoration, particularly with lenses.
“The degree of sophistication – and the constraints – are increasing,” said Uglum. “As the technology advances, there’s a need to integrate the hardware in a harmonious fashion so it’s not obvious to the driver.”
Increased complexity, lower volumes are the new trend
As quoted in the Reuters story, Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for General Motors Co., said, “The US economy continues to expand, and the most important factors that drive demand for new vehicles are in place, so we expect to see a second consecutive year of record industry sales in 2016.”
The consistently higher volumes – and stunning number of expected trim levels integrating many of the design trends mentioned above – mean those involved in the plastics supply chain need to develop strategies to deal with the line changeovers, component inventories and variety of processes required to meet the expectations of a more demanding consumer. “Companies that do not address the increased complexity face increased product development time and cost, increased tool cost and higher launch costs, which is not sustainable in the long term,” said Harbour.