Autoglass: slow progress by polycarbonate rival

Despite claims for the advantages offered by polycarbonate glazing over traditional autoglass, progress to date by the new material has been slow. A major polycarbonate glazing project announced in Ma…

Despite claims for the advantages offered by polycarbonate glazing over traditional autoglass, progress to date by the new material has been slow. A major polycarbonate glazing project announced in March 2005 has not yet moved much beyond the test stage. Automotive supply company Cadence Innovations had planned a USD 30 million investment in the Czech Republic to make polycarbonate glazing coated with a scratch-resistant “near-glass” layer. However, a decision is still awaited on the site for the pilot plant. As of autumn 2005 it expected to build the plant in 2006. “We still have many internal discussions running, which are concerning PC (polycarbonate) glazing, especially the pilot project and its extent,” said Pavel Neuman, CEO of Cadence in Czech Republic. “This of course influences strongly the final decision about the location”. At the Frankfurt auto show in September 2005, Cadence and Dutch supplier Inalfa Roof Systems, showed a panoramic sunroof of polycarbonate louvers made with a scratch-proof process that Cadence has licensed from Exatec, a joint venture between resin suppliers GE Plastics and Bayer AG. At the time, Inalfa and Cadence appeared to be developing a project sold to an auto manufacturer. As of spring 2006, however, Inalfa said the polycarbonate glazing remained at the testing stage. “We want to be a little bit further in our development before we start publishing more about the subject, due to the relative negative experience with the products of some competitors,” said Eddy van der Vorst, Inalfa Roof Systems“ business development director. “With the negative press around those projects, we prefer to first develop our technology a little further and finish all the validation and testing,” he said Polycarbonate, which can be molded into complex shapes, is now standard for headlight covers, but the first real penetration into traditional automotive “greenhouse” areas was the fixed rear window in the Smart Fortwo city car from 1998. That window is supplied by Freeglass GmbH, a joint venture between Saint-Gobain Sekurit and Schefenacker AG. Since then, Freeglass has supplied fixed side windows to the Smart roadster and Forfour (both now abandoned by Smart) and polycarbonate panels in sunroofs for the Mercedes-Benz A and B Class cars. In 2005, Freeglass began supplying its first component for a customer other than DaimlerChrysler AG: fixed rear windows for the SEAT Leon that include a molded recess to access the rear door handle. Polycarbonate is appreciated by concept-car designers for its moldability and by engineers for its strength and light weight. The main problem with the material is its softness: unless specially treated, polycarbonate scratches easily. Freeglass has been using a wet-coat treatment in which the coating is applied like paint and cured. Exatec uses a plasma technique, in which a thin glass-like coating is applied in a vacuum chamber. “The current leader in polycarbonate glazing is Freeglass,” Exatec CEO Clemens Kaiser tells Ward“s. “They use a relatively well-known wet coating. There are well-known limitations to its resistance to abrasion and weathering that only Exatec 900 can meet for glazing. It extends the market potential (of polycarbonate glazing) because it enables windows and large roof systems”. Exatec 900 is essentially the plasma coating process, which can be used on any part molded with a polycarbonate resin. The Bayer resin is marketed as Makrolon, and the GE Plastic resin as Lexan. Kaiser said the first Exatec glazing will appear in 2008 or 2009, and “once it starts, you will see exponential growth”. Exatec was formed in 1998, the year the Smart Fortwo went into production, so swift adoption has been the paradoxical promise of polycarbonate glazing for almost a decade. As well as the problems of abrasion and durability, there is the problem of cost; glass, while heavy, is quicker and cheaper to make. In an article six years ago, then-Exatec President Doug Nutter said that while polycarbonate technology would never be as cheap as glass, it could add value. “Let“s just say doing the side glass in a vehicle costs an extra USD 150,” Nutter was quoted as saying. “For your investment, we can take 20 to 50 lbs. (9 to 22 kg) out of a car, we can offer colored glazing, styling freedom, modularization on encapsulated parts and protection from occupant ejection. That“s a lot of value”. In autumn 2005, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said polycarbonate could be used in vehicle windows if it meets the 10-year durability requirements for glass, which Kaiser claims Exatec 900 does. The trends towards larger glazed areas in cars as well as the desire for greater efficiency could auger well for lightweight polycarbonates. In North America, said Kaiser, polycarbonate roof systems are seeing limited success. The Japanese and Europeans are ahead on big roofs, according to Kaiser, “but there are a few programs from North American OEMs, such as that for the Cadillac SRX”. “Where they are available as standard or an option they appear to be very popular with buyers, and they are increasing in popularity. There is more and more interest in a large roof with glass. Today they use laminates, which are heavy, and the shape is limited. Polycarbonate is half the mass of glass, and less than half compared to laminated glass”, Kaiser said. Cadence Innovation has three plants in the Czech Republic making plastic auto parts, at Liberec, Liban and Nymburk. The pilot plant for the Exatec process is expected to be associated with one of those sites. And Inalfa“s van der Vorst said that while “the quality of production and coating systems are not yet at the same level as where we will be”, the polycarbonate glazing in the roof module is now in the process of going though an intensive “Arizona Test“ to validate its durability, the final step in persuading the purchasing departments at auto makers“ to sign contracts.