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A new $148-million national research institute to open in Detroit could generate 10,000 high-tech jobs over the next five years.
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Automakers are integrating aluminum to its vehicles such as Ford and its 2015 F-150 on sale this fall. The “aluminum-intensive” body and lightweight, high-strength steel frame will shed 700 pounds in the quest to save fuel.

In a bid to rebuild America’s manufacturing base, the Obama administration recently selected Detroit to be the location of one of a handful of specialized institutes that will pair advanced university researchers with companies that can translate material concepts into new products in aerospace, medical devices, robots, and consumer goods.

Dubbed ALMMII, the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute is backed by $148 million in funding; $70 million in federal dollars and $78 million from various consortium partners that includes $10 million from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “The long-term goal,” explains the White House, “will be to expand the market for and create new consumers of products and systems that utilize new, lightweight, high-performing metals and alloys.”

The initiative may translate into everything from lighter, more efficient aircraft to improved military vehicles strong enough to stand up to roadside bombs yet light enough to be carried by helicopter to front-line troops. But perhaps the biggest potential payoff for the process known as “light weighting” could come in the automotive sector.

With automakers facing a big jump in the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016, followed by another hurdle to 54.5 mpg by 2025, the industry needs all the help it can get to achieve those results.

Manufacturers are attacking virtually every aspect of the automobile: Improving aerodynamics, downsizing engines, adopting advanced hybrid drivetrains, and switching to more advanced 8-, 9-, and 10-speed transmissions.

Cutting a vehicle’s mass offers automakers big opportunities. The general rule of thumb has been that for every 100 pounds shaved from the weight of a vehicle, fuel economy rises by about one mile per gallon.

To get to the new standards, new, lighter-weight materials like aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber will become more common in vehicles. The integration won’t be easy, however, and it will require a shift in thinking when it comes to manufacturing techniques. Consumers also will have to be convinced that “lighter” ensures that tomorrow’s vehicles remain as rugged and durable — and just as easy to repair — as the machines they find in showrooms today.

Every gram counts, as Mazda has learned with products like the new Mazda3, a runner-up in this year’s balloting for North American Car of the Year. The new SkyActiv system is a holistic approach to automotive design that covers everything from the all-new four-cylinder engine that powers the Mazda3 down to its lug nuts, which the company has been able to trim in mass by about a gram apiece.

Add the use of new, thinner-yet-higher-strength steel alloys and the hatchback is about 200 pounds lighter than the model it replaces, even as the Mazda3 has a longer wheelbase and a lot more content.

 

Taking the same road, Cadillac substantially trimmed the weight of its new ATS sedan by developing an assortment of tricks that included scalloping the edges of sheet metal panels around weld points.

But on a vehicle as brawny as a full-size pickup, it takes something more dramatic to truly make a difference.

Enter aluminum, which has steadily been used for engine blocks, suspension components, and at least some body panels. The hood and tailgate of the new Audi A3 that recently debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, for example, are crafted from aluminum.

Now Ford is about to use the lightweight metal even more broadly, potentially yielding one of the industry’s most dramatic breakthroughs in decades. When the all-new 2015 F-150 pickup reaches showrooms later this year it will feature an “aluminum-intensive” body — although a single panel will continue to be produced out of the familiar steel that came to dominate automotive manufacturing even before Henry Ford built the first Model T in 1908.

The impact will be substantial. On the whole, the new F-150 will weigh in at anywhere from 500 to more than 700 pounds lighter than the outgoing version of the truck, according to Pete Reyes, the program’s chief engineer.

While the automaker isn’t ready to release fuel economy figures, Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas, hints the 2015 truck will be “CAFE-positive,” meaning it will be lighter than what is needed to meet the adjusted mileage requirements for its market segment. Inside sources at Ford suggest that with the new turbocharged 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine that will be offered with the 2015 model, consumers could see a full-size pickup yielding more than 30 mpg — an industry first.

In today’s market, even with fuel prices down sharply from last year’s peaks, that alone could prove to be a game-changer. But Reyes and other Ford officials say the new F-150’s aluminum-intensive design has some other advantages.

Forget the image of easily crushed beer cans; the unique aluminum alloys used in the 2015 truck are actually more ding- and dent-resistant than conventional steel, the company claims. In fact, Ford will be using alloys similar to those in the U.S. military’s M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

The F-150 isn’t the automaker’s first vehicle to migrate to aluminum. Ford has been studying the potential for aluminum for more than two decades, notably with the DEW98 program that eventually fell back to steel. It pushed further with two British brands, Jaguar and Land Rover, before selling them off several years ago.

Still, a number of recent Jaguar models have gone to virtually all-aluminum designs, while the 2013 model year Range Rover adopted an aluminum body and chassis. As a result, the U.S. version of the Range Rover shed about 800 pounds in mass.

Ford officials acknowledge their former British subsidiaries provided valuable lessons in how to design, engineer, and assemble vehicles using aluminum — however, it’s not simply a matter of substituting one material for another.

 

Aluminum is more brittle, requiring a lot more care in the stamping process than steel. It also bends differently, and it requires very different processes to weld — or, in many cases, to bond through the use of adhesives.

Finally, it’s one thing to produce in the relatively modest volumes of a Jaguar or Land Rover; it’s another thing entirely when your big assembly lines are each rolling out a new F-Series pickup at the rate of about one per minute, day after day, week after week. If anything, Ford is hoping the fuel economy advantages offered by the new truck will help boost demand well above the nearly 800,000 F-150s sold in 2013.

To get there, the automaker will have to win over the hearts and minds of consumers before it can get to their wallets. Pickup buyers tend to be a loyal group, but they’re also conservative — especially fleet customers, who track their costs per mile down to the fraction of a penny. One of the key questions is whether the use of aluminum will result in higher long-term operating costs, most notably in terms of durability, reliability, and repairs.

“For fleet buyers who experience a lot of damage in heavy use, this could be a matter of concern,” cautions Dave Sullivan, senior auto analyst at AutoPacific Inc., who says Ford is taking a big risk with the 2015 F-150.

“If they can’t pull it off, they don’t have a backup plan. This is like putting all your chips on the table, along with your first-born.”

Ford officials note that aluminum body panels tend to offer better ding resistance than steel, but they acknowledge that repairs will be inevitable. And that’s where the biggest challenge comes in.

The metal is significantly more difficult to work with, notes Bob Emmett, manager of Autometric Collision in Royal Oak, one of the largest independent chains in the Motor City. “Repairing aluminum is much different from steel,” he explains. “It’s more brittle and doesn’t bend the same way,” which is why only one of Autometric’s nine shops in metro Detroit is currently certified to work with aluminum — and only with some manufacturers’ vehicles.

Even as the metal goes mainstream, industry planners are looking for lighter, yet stronger materials. Until recently, carbon fiber was so costly its use was limited to Formula One race cars and ultra-exotics from the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, and Lamborghini.

Chevrolet added several key CFRP, or carbon fiber-reinforced plastic panels — including the roof and hood — to the Corvette Stingray that was named 2014 North American Car of the Year. Chevrolet plans to make even more extensive use of the exotic material on Corvette Z06 models coming to market in 2015.

The big question is just how much further down-market the industry can go with a material that Steve Girsky, former General Motors vice chairman and current board member, calls a “game-changer.” GM has long experimented with carbon fiber, and its investment arm, GM Ventures, recently signed a deal with Japan’s Teijin Limited to develop more efficient methods of producing the material.

 

Early on, carbon fiber components took time to produce, requiring the use of special molds and slow-curing resins. As a result, only limited numbers of pieces could be produced, at costs far beyond what could reasonably be passed on to consumers.

But Teijin has developed a process that can produce a CFRP part in under a minute, closer to the time required by modern automotive plastics. “Our relationship with Teijin provides the opportunity to revolutionize the way carbon fiber is used in the automotive industry,” Girsky says.

GM isn’t alone in looking for a way to produce carbon fiber components more like steel. Toyota turned to the lightweight material for the body of its Lexus LFA supercar, using some of the same techniques pioneered by the textile manufacturing side of the company. It eventually hopes to be able to bring costs down enough for other, more mainstream products.

BMW is another active investor, forming a $133-million partnership with supplier SGL Group aimed at transforming carbon fiber from a high-cost specialty material used only in the most expensive, limited-volume supercars and making it competitively priced for mass market products.

Today, the partners operate two manufacturing facilities: one in Germany, the other in the U.S. The first fruit of their effort is just  coming to market in the form of the compact BMW battery-electric vehicle, the i3. With a starting price of $41,350, the composite body is the closest the material has come to mass market.

There is, of course, a reason BMW chose to start with the i3, the first offering to emerge from its so-called Megacity Vehicle program. Given today’s limited battery technology, electric vehicles suffer from a variety of problems. Shaving mass is one of the easiest ways to enhance limited range.

Carbon fiber does offer other advantages. As fans of the Formula One racing series are aware, the material is not just light but incredibly strong — yet it has unique properties that engineers are struggling to understand. Among other things, carbon fiber ultimately shatters, rather than bends, in a high-speed collision.

 

In fact, some exotic carbon fiber vehicles have had to incorporate more traditional steel crash structures. Hence, steel won’t be going away overnight.

Into the future, new alloys and other breakthroughs dubbed the “third-generation” of steel will keep the familiar metal in tomorrow’s cars. The entry of more ultra-strength alloys means automakers can reduce sheet panel thicknesses, for example. And they can form shapes that are difficult to pull together with aluminum and other alternative materials — at least for now.

That’s why GM has invested in steel manufacturing ventures such as Rhode Island-based NanoSteel. The firm is developing a new technique to carefully control the way the microscopic grains in a sheet of steel are aligned. It could be the next giant step in a series of improved steels that permit manufacturers to use even thinner sheets of the metal to both trim weight and increase strength.

Even so, the 2025 CAFE rules may simply be too much for steel to overcome. A 2013 study by Ducker Worldwide, and backed by the European Aluminium Association, predicted the lighter metal would represent 16 percent of a typical automobile’s weight by 2025, roughly doubling current levels.

If anything, observers contend, Ford’s decision to go with aluminum for the new F-150 could hasten that shift. And steel could lose even more ground if the new BMW i3 proves successful.

That’s all the more reason why the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Canton will be so critical. Initial forecasts suggest the institute could generate as many as 10,000 new industry jobs in the coming years — but the impact would likely be far greater if it can help move aluminum, carbon fiber, and other lightweight materials into the manufacturing mainstream. db

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