I hate plastic. Mostly because it, mysteriously, doesn’t dry in the dishwasher. But also because a lot of things that used to be made with more durable materials (and that are now made with plastic) don’t last very long.
On the other hand, plastics have been beneficial in many respects, especially in the auto industry. I remember people complaining a few decades ago when polyurethane and polypropylene fascias replaced the large chrome bumpers that were on most cars, but the truth is the use of these plastics allowed for better aerodynamics, sleeker designs, and even improved safety.
The latest issue of Automotive Engineering International describes how plastics are taking the next step in automotive design: being incorporated into suspension components and other structural areas of the car. For example, ZF is developing a transverse-leaf-spring rear axle utilizing glass-reinforced plastic for the spring itself, as well an upside-down carbon fiber-reinforced polymer strut and plastic spring for the front suspension. In addition to the benefits of lighter weight (and lighter unsprung weight, which magnifies the handling benefit) the strut can be manufactured with an integrated signal fiber that acts as a strain gauge, providing a warning of any impending structural failure. (This is not to suggest the chance of a structural failure with these components is any greater than with traditional steel suspension parts. Formula 1 and Le Mans Prototype race cars have been using composite suspension components for years. And in fact, these components may actually be safer, since they won’t rust when exposed to road salt and water, and they can actually let you know when there’s a problem!)
Additionally Bayer MaterialScience is developing polycarbonate windows for use in road-going vehicles. This again is a case where technology that has long been used in motorsports is making its way to the masses. The problem with polycarbonate windows has historically been the ease with which they scratch. That’s not a big deal in racing, where the windshield gets replaced frequently. But Bayer has developed coatings which make polycarbonate windows stand up to the rigors of life on our nation’s highways. Here, too, we have the benefits of reduced weight (especially up high in the vehicle, where it affects handling) and increased safety (no shattered glass).
The use of plastics and composites will play a significant role in the design and manufacture of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. (What’s next, plastic engines?!) …Given how far we’ve come with plastics, it seems that by now someone would have made a plastic child’s sippy-cup that would emerge dry from the dishwasher…