Foam is where the art is: Interview with Paul Compton, ARPRO

Paul Fanning finds out how an apparently humble foam product could change automotive design.

Essentially 600,000 balloons fused together", is how Paul Compton, JSP's President and CEO EMEA, describes his company's product ARPRO. However, he believes this description should not obscure the possibilities of a product that is already being used worldwide, but has potential to be much more widely adopted. ARPRO is an expanded polypropylene plastic foam material used in moulded parts in a variety of applications worldwide. Currently, its largest market is in the automotive industry where, says Compton, "it is pretty much in every car – everything from a Twingo to a Rolls-Royce". The material was first used in the manufacture of bumpers by Nissan in the United States in the 1980s and, since then, has spread into all areas of cars, including sun visors, seat backs, trunk liners, toolboxes, wheel arches, undercarpet floor-levellers, head impact and side impact protection. Its benefits include durability, relatively low cost, high impact management and the fact that it reforms once hit (making it ideal for bumpers). However, one advantage of the material that was not considered crucial 30 years ago now represents one of ARPRO's greatest strengths in the automotive market – its light weight. Says Compton: "Initially, it was about functionality rather than weight. The fact that it was lightweight was originally an additional benefit rather than a core thing. However, as time has gone on, its light weight is a lot more important now than it was in 1985." Quite how much weight ARPRO could save can be seen in applications such as Inrekor (see Eureka, March 2012), where it is used as part of a sandwich panel to form the chassis and can take as much as 300 kilos or more out of the car (not all in the chassis, but in the fact that the lightweight chassis allows manufacturers to down-gauge the brakes, the wheels, etc). There is even an electric vehicle company currently looking at using it for the body of the car. "There is a point where you simply can't put any more ARPRO into a car," says Compton, "but we haven't found where that point is yet." Even despite the obvious need for lightweighting, however, there remains considerable scope for educating designers within the automotive sector. Conservatism still abounds among designers and is not helped by other factors, claims Compton: "Designers only became aware of the functionalities of ARPRO slowly, unfortunately, as the sheer scale of OEMs means that there isn't a huge amount of inter-disciplinary crossover. The function of scale is such that, when we developed a seat application with Porsche, people were incredulous and knew nothing about the material. You can say "But the bumper guy knows all about it!" and they won't even know who the bumper guy is – he's probably in a different building or even a different site or country!" Another challenge facing Compton is the need to improve the surface aesthetic of the product, which would open up a range of new markets for the company. Says Compton: "At the moment, you will find ARPRO in most cars, but it's usually hidden behind something else. This is because, when it's exposed, it has a problem. Designers may like the untreated surface, but consumers unfortunately do not." He continues: "You can have a very nice surface. In general, you can't have a high-gloss surface. You can melt the surface for a crystalline surface, but you're limited in terms of the complexity of shape you can do that in. It tends to be only one plane you can do that on. You can see the beads and can see the voids – which do not matter to function, but do to appearance. You can eliminate that and the core vents with surface treatment." Overall, Compton is extremely positive about the future, feeling that ARPRO will play an increasingly prominent part in car design, pointing to how far it has come already. He says: "I wouldn't have imagined in 1985 that you would have surfaces actually exposed within the car, but you increasingly do now. As consumers, people tend to think that, if something is an integral part of the car and performs, they accept it."