DETROIT – When automakers and their suppliers would discuss vehicle weight reduction, the dialogue typically centered on “how many dollars is a pound worth,” says Steve Pitrof, Inteva Products’ engineering manager-business development, interior systems.

But today, OEMs often ask “Can the cost be zero?” he says during an interiors lightweighting panel discussion at the 2018 WardsAuto Interiors Conference.

“Of course it can be, but that’s limiting,” Pitrof says. “If you tell a customer it’s a 5% to 10% increase, you run into a brick wall. The customer does care, but the automotive market is competitive. It’s been at near-zero inflation for 20 years.”

Pitrof calls it “the cost conundrum.” He and fellow panelists Jeff Carroll and Mark Minnichelli discuss the delicate balances interior suppliers face as they try to do their part in reducing vehicle weight, mainly in the name of improved fuel economy.   

At the same time they try to trim the pounds, automakers –

responding to competitive forces and consumer demands – seek to enhance interior content, something that can put the pounds on.  

“One way for OEMs to distinguish themselves is through seating,” says Carroll, supplier Magna’s engineering director-structural products. That’s expected to soon lead to motorized power-adjustment features for second- and third-row seating.

The cost and weight factors for that are challenging, Carroll says. “Increased

functionality impacts weight, yet the need for weight reduction continues to grow for every component of seats.”

A way to both decrease weight yet increase functionality is “combined functionality” in which certain mechanized seat parts perform dual roles, he says. That reduces the number of components and, in turn, sheds pounds.

Also contributing to the diet plan is the use of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum. Those come with a price, however.

Most auto-industry people think the liberal use of carbon fiber is cost prohibitive, notes panel moderator Bill Windscheif, president and founder of Advanced Innovative Solutions.

But the good news is the cost of carbon fiber is coming down, says Minnichelli, technical development director-performance materials division at chemical company BASF.

“There are now grades that are more cost-effective,” he says. “And new technologies for the use of scrap carbon fiber are bringing costs down. Because of those reduced costs, we’ll reach a tipping point where we’ll see increased use of carbon fiber.”

Despite the challenges of cost controls and weight reduction in the face of increased functionality, Pitrof remains optimistic. “A team effort will get us to the finish line,” he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com