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History of Automotive Composites

The concept of "composite" building construction has existed since ancient times. Civilizations throughout the world have used basic elements of their surrounding environment in the fabrication of dwellings including mud/straw and wood/clay. "Bricks" were made from mud and straw with the mud acting much like the resin in FRP composite construction and the straw acting as reinforcing to hold the brick together during the drying (and shrinkage) process of the brick. In the "wattle and daub" method of constructing walls, vertical wooden stakes (wattles) were woven with horizontal twigs and branches and then daubed with clay or mud. This is one of the oldest known methods for making a waterproof structure.

While the concept of composites has been in existence for several millennia, the incorporation of FRP composite technology into the industrial world is less than a century old. The true age of plastics emerged just after 1900 with chemists and industrialists taking bold steps to have plastics (vinyl, polystyrene and plexiglass) mimic and outdo nature's own materials. Spurred on by the needs of electronics, defense and eventually space technologies, researchers created materials with properties that seem to defy known principles, like Kevlar stopping bullets. The first known FRP product was a boat hull manufactured in the mid 1930's as part of a manufacturing experiment using a fiberglass fabric and polyester resin laid in a foam mold. From this somewhat inauspicious beginning, FRP composites applications have revolutionized entire industries, including aerospace, marine, electrical, corrosion-resistance and transportation.

Fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composite materials date back to the early 1940's in the defense industry, particularly for use in aerospace and naval applications. The U.S. Air Force and Navy capitalized on FRP composites high strength-to-weight ratio capability and inherent resistance to weather and the corrosive effects of salt air and sea. By 1945, over seven million pounds of fiberglass were being shipped, primarily for military applications. Soon the benefits of FRP composites, especially its corrosion resistance capabilities, were communicated to the public sector. Fiberglass pipe, for instance, was first introduced in 1948 for what has become one of its widest areas of use within the corrosion market, the oil industry. FRP composites proved to be a worthy alternative to other traditional materials even in the high-pressure, large diameter situations of chemical processing. Besides superior corrosion resistance, FRP pipe offered both durability and strength thus eliminating the need for interior linings, exterior coatings, and/or cathodic protection. Since the early 1950's, FRP composites have been (and still are) used extensively for equipment in the chemical processing, pulp and paper, power, waste treatment, metals refining and other manufacturing industries. Myriads of products and FRP installations help build a baseline of proven performance in the field in such products as chemical plant scrubbers, hoppers, hoods, ducts, fans, stacks, piping, pumps and pump bases, valve bodies and above-ground as well as underground tanks for chemicals or gasoline.

The decades after the 40's brought new, and often times, revolutionary applications for FRP composites. The same technology that produced the reinforced plastic hoops required for the Manhattan nuclear project in World War II, spawned the development of high performance composite materials for solid rocket motor cases and tanks in 60's and 70's. In fact, fiberglass wall tanks were used on the Skylab orbiting laboratory to provide oxygen for the astronauts. In 1953, the 1st production Chevrolet Corvette with fiberglass body panels rolled off the assembly line. Now, high-performance racecars are the proving ground for technology transfer to passenger vehicles. In the 1960's, the British and U.S. Navies were simultaneously developing minesweeper ships as FRP composites are not only superior to other materials in a harsh marine environment, they are also non-magnetic in nature. It was also noticed at that time that one of the features of FRP is the ability of the materials to reduce the radar signature of the structure, such as a ship or an aircraft. High performance composites materials have been demonstrated in advanced technology aircraft such as the F-117 Stealth Fighter and B-2 Bomber. Currently, FRP composites are being used for space applications and are involved in several NASA test initiatives.

The marine market was the largest consumer of composite materials in the 1960's. In the 1970's, the automotive market surpassed marine as the number one market; a position it retains. Composites have also impacted the electrical transmission market with products such as pole line hardware, cross-arms, and insulators.

While the majority of the historical and durability data of FRP composite installations come from the aerospace, marine and corrosion resistance industries, FRP composites have been used as a construction material for several decades. FRP composite products were first demonstrated to reinforce concrete structures in the mid 1950's. In the 1980's, resurgence in interest arose when new developments were launched to apply FRP reinforcing bars in concrete that required special performance requirements such as non-magnetic properties or in areas that were subjected to severe chemical attack.

Composites have evolved since the 1950's in architectural applications starting with semi-permanent structures and continuing with restoration of historic buildings and structural applications. Typical products developed were domes, shrouds, translucent sheet panels, and exterior building panels.

During the late 1970's and early 1980's, many applications of composite reinforcing products were demonstrated in Europe and Asia. In 1986, the world's first highway bridge using composites reinforcing tendons was built in Germany. The first all composites bridge deck was demonstrated in China. The first all composites pedestrian bridge was installed in 1992 in Aberfeldy, Scotland. In the U.S., the first FRP reinforced concrete bridge deck was built in 1996 at McKinleyville, WV followed by the first all-composite vehicular bridge deck in Russell, KS. Numerous composite pedestrian bridges have been installed in U.S. state and national parks in remote locations not accessible by heavy construction equipment, or for spanning over roadways and railways.

Automotive Composites Milestones

1945 Owens Corning work with William Stout to develop the Stout 46, the 1st automobile developed with a fiberglass composite body. Brandt Goldsworthy builds all-composite body for the Dutch Darrin auto
1953 MFG launches the Chevrolet Corvette fiberglass body
1954 Heavy-duty truck hood and fender are molded in one piece. Ford Thunderbird has a composite hardtop
1959 White 5000 (cab-over-engine) Cab
1960's A new process called Sheet Molding Composite (SMC) is invented.
1963 Studebaker Avanti car shows what design legend Raymond Loewy could do with composites
1966 Armstrong Rubber Co. introduces tires with glass fibers.
1968 SMC is introduced as an air deflector on the Chrysler station wagon. Ford Shelby GT makes dramatic use of composites for body panels
1970's Transportation passes Marine as the number one market for composites
1970 Pontiac Tempest grille opening panel highlights SMC's ability to consolidate parts and reduce weight
1972 Chevrolet Corvette body panels are converted to SMC using Owens Corning Materials.
1973 Owens Corning works with Crown Fiberglass to develop first GM Heavy Truck Tilt Hood with SMC.
1973 GMC Truck designs and builds a motor home with composite body panels
1981 Composite leaf spring introduced on the Corvette, Owens Corning involved in initial spring design.
1981 Corvette gets a composite leaf spring
1984 Pontiac Fiero is the first high-volume composite-bodied car
1987 Mercury Tracer bumper beam is the first SMC structural part in North America
1990 General Motors APV van is the largest volume composite-bodied vehicle
1992 Dodge Viper featuring many composite parts is launched.
1993 The Corvette rear inner panel and Chrysler Ram Van interior panels are produced with recycled SMC (Phoniex Fiberglass)
1996 Ford introduces SMC integrated front-end system on Taurus and Sable
2001 Ford introduces SMC pickup box (Sport Track)
2003 Tough Class-A provides Ford with SMC substrate that equals steel through paint
2004 UV stable SMC is introduced

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