Volume 6, Issue 1 - February 2011

Automotive Materials: Design Insights

An inside look at the evolution of vehicle-changing materials in automotive design

Special to e-Automotive Update

As Dean of the College for Creative Studies, an academic hotbed for automotive design in Detroit, Imre Molnar's experience and relationships with the global automotive industry give him unique insights into the evolving role materials play in vehicle design. He has a finger on the pulse of yesterday's, today's and tomorrow's automotive design reverberations. This article is the first in a series featuring Professor Molnar's insights into the influence of materials on automotive design.

The materials used in automotive design and engineering have come a long way since the all-iron bumpers of the Ford Model T. Today, materials — from lightweight, high performance alloys to composites and other plastics — offer automotive designers and engineers aesthetically pleasing, yet practical options.

Advances in materials and manufacturing processes have given designers an unprecedented range of options — a freedom to innovate — that previously they never had. Years ago designers were locked in by manufacturing protocols and limited materials. The brands therefore evolved very slowly. There weren't radical shifts. Now design can accomplish almost anything.

As a result, conversations in automotive design circles today focus largely on "designing to brand," that is, creating designs that are true to the legacy of an automotive brand.

Motor City Legacy
Detroit's automotive design legacy is something I'm familiar with. In fact, I walk its halls daily. My office on the 9th floor of the old Argonaut Building is in the former home of General Motors' vehicle design headquarters (from the mid-1930s to 1999). In this very building Harley Earl, the grandfather of modern automotive design, first pushed the boundaries of design possibilities.

The iconic building, since re-named the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, is now home to the College for Creative Studies (CCS).

The building is once again bustling with forward-looking automotive design. Indeed, just two floors above my office, industrial design students are fashioning tomorrow's vehicles and influencing automotive OEMs in the process.

CCS has a very close relationship with the automotive industry. It's a day-to-day relationship in which companies sponsor research projects that are executed by our students. Though they're rarely projects that will be commercialized, they inspire the sponsoring company. We're understood and recognized by industry, so they come here looking for talent that will design tomorrow's vehicle. This is pretty rarefied turf.

To understand where automotive design is going, it's instructive to take a look back at how far it's come and the role materials have played in that progression.

Rearview Mirror
Steel, rubber, a little bit of wood, maybe some canvas and leather — those were the limited materials of choice for automotive design and engineering in the period before World War II. The manufacturing processes were limited, and the tools were limited, too.

During and soon after the war a series of breakthroughs happened, broadening the materials choice.

  • Thermoset and injected molded plastics became more common.
  • Metallurgy and alloys began to play a larger part.
  • Aluminum-based components surfaced.

It was an era of more fluid and aesthetically pleasing designs. Smaller size vehicles were imported to the U.S. Think of the Mini, Fiat and Volkswagen with the Beetle. U.S. automakers reintroduced the Cadillac Eldorado and other super-luxurious models.

Japanese Influence
There was a major acceleration in design, styling and material selection when the Japanese automotive industry arrived in the United States. Japan had a longer history and advanced skill in metallurgical applications. For instance, the Japanese were world-renowned for their advanced metallurgy in making swords and knives.

The Japanese began to aggressively utilize aluminum in performance areas and develop lightweight combinations of aluminum and steel. They also focused more closely on wear and tear areas and created assemblies that were very reliable — initially in their motorcycles and then in the cars they produced. Their most noteworthy materials and process innovations at that time were in the engines they were manufacturing in large volumes.

Beyond improvements in performance and reliability, Japanese automakers' interest gravitated to the interior of the motor car. They paid very close attention to the qualities of the interior — the choice of material, their finish and texture.

They began to present an interior environment that worked well from an ergonomic standpoint but also was beginning to move into a pleasurable and sensual zone — and they did it in a cost-effective way.

Around the same time German automakers, Mercedes in particular, were doing "superb work" with beautiful timbers, luxurious leathers, and made very advanced utilization of plastics. German automakers also began to use plastic components in a sophisticated and refined way.

Yet, the Japanese followed this same course and produced very inexpensive cars with a high-level of finish that were comparable to the finish of more luxurious European brands.

This began an era of unprecedented competition in terms of quality and attention to detail and finish, which was either won or lost based on the selection of materials and the manufacturing processes that were applied. It became apparent that materials were a way for companies to differentiate and refine their products in a fairly cost-effective way.

Swatch's Role
In some cases, the high-performance materials application came from industries other than automotive. Certainly one unique contribution to automotive design and material specification came from a watch — the multi-colored Swatch®! The watch shared common, interchangeable components that enabled a person to accessorize his or her watch with different band colors and covers.

Swatch initially partnered with Daimler AG and set out to apply this philosophy to the auto industry — an alliance that eventually led to the "smart" car. The "smart" car was the first to provide a touch of luxury at a cost-effective price.

smart's customization included swapping out body panels, for instance. The Mini Cooper followed in this path by being the first in the auto industry to provide an interactive web site where an owner could pick and choose components that significantly impacted the styling of his or her own car.

Professional Acceptance
Previously it was the car designer and the engineers who chose the materials affecting the vehicle's aesthetics. However, the fast-paced innovation in material sciences in the '90's led to an explosion of new possibilities in automotive design. In what had previously been the "color studios" within automotive design, the niche expertise of research and specification of new materials gained tremendous prominence.

This professional niche — Color and Materials — began to grow as competition among brands grew. The choice of colors, of textures and of finishes, became a significant differentiator between one brand and another. Color and Materials became a very lucrative field. There grew to be a significant industry around new material developments that wasn't only based on pursuing performance criteria. Tactile and aesthetic drivers became a reason in and of themselves to create new materials.

Since then, the field has spread to the point where today, designers get together with artists — color and materials specialists — to survey materials and cross-reference them with performance criteria. And in the new millennium, the whole area of aesthetics around materials has become a rich and vibrant profession.

Here at CCS we also very carefully monitor the material manufacturing organizations to see what new products are coming onto the market so we can figure out innovative and creative ways to utilize them to enhance design outcomes.

As boundaries blur between the zones of 1) performance materials and 2) aesthetically pleasing materials, it's evident that materials will continue to play a heightened role in vehicle design as a customizable differentiator.

For more information, please contact David Loren by phone 248-475-7729, or e-mail: david.loren@bayer.com.

Bayer MaterialScience LLC's Automotive team is pleased to present this series of guest columns graciously provided by Professor Imre Molnar.


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