Combined forces

With nearly unlimited materials and joining options to consider, automakers collaborate to achieve common goals

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First-time diners at New York’s Shopsin’s General Store might have felt a tad overwhelmed the first time they laid eyes on the restaurant’s sprawling menu. Purportedly, there were more than 900 items to choose from. And if that weren’t difficult enough, the owner, Kenny Shopsin, expected diners to come to a decision on their own. He didn’t tolerate any of this “I’ll have what he’s having” nonsense.

Dealing with an inordinate amount of choices, automakers might feel some sympathy for diners at the New York restaurant. Although Shopsin’s menu might not properly exemplify the challenge that automakers face when it comes to choosing how to lightweight their vehicles, having too many options can slow down the decision-making process. With new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards set for model years 2017 to 2025, time is of the essence.   

From the myriad of materials that can be leveraged to lightweight a car to the dozens of joining processes to implement, coming to a final conclusion can be time-consuming. Being able to collaborate with other automakers, however, can speed up the process. The tight-lipped approach has definitely loosened over the years.    

In that same vein, Shopsin has become a bit more understanding of his patrons. His menu is still just as big, but his rules about ordering have relaxed. Today, there’s no reprimand for diners who settle on an order based on what others seem to be enjoying.   

automakers competition
When automakers get a closer look at their competitors’ approaches to lightweighting, the overall industry benefits. This can be achieved through consortiums and partnerships and at conferences and networking events.

Additive insight

To see what other automakers have on their plates, so to speak, there are a few options. Throughout the year, automotive engineers and designers gather at events like the one happening Feb. 22-23 in Detroit – a fitting location. The Lightweight Vehicle Manufacturing Summit is the fourth of its kind hosted by GALM Intelligence, a London-based group focused on automotive lightweighting initiatives.

At the event, attendees can expect presentations from automotive engineers and other leaders in the industry that put a focus on lightweighting. Presenters include representatives from Ford, General Motors, Volvo and Honda, among others. Topics will cover formability and corrosion mitigation for new material grades and multi-material combinations as well as the latest in aluminum-related technology developments, lightweighting for medium and heavy-duty trucks (in addition to the lightweighting of passenger vehicles), and the increased use of adhesives. Paul Wolcott, body SMT innovation at General Motors, will be one of those presenters.

Wolcott, who has a materials science and engineering degree from the University of Michigan as well as a PhD in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University, brings a lot to the table in regard to his research in unique joining processes. He has experience in solid-state welding and joint designs for a variety of material mixes, including aluminum and titanium, aluminum and steel, aluminum and copper as well as other material combinations. In his current role at General Motors, he’s focused on applications for additive manufacturing (AM).

During his presentation, Wolcott will address some of the challenges and potential opportunities for AM in the industry, looking at where it can be applied, where it’s been used in the past and where it can be investigated moving forward. As many familiar with AM may know, one of its inherent benefits is a reduction in the number of parts that must be produced.

“One of the ways in which additive manufacturing has been used in the past is for part consolidation,” Wolcott explains. “Instead of having 20 parts that are individually manufactured and then welded together, you can use a 3-D printer to produce just one part.”

mfg light weighting for automakers

Wolcott adds that part consolidation certainly depends on the application, but that overall, now is a good time for automakers to look deeper into AM, considering the advancements that have taken place on the metals side of the technology. Although plastics might have been the first out of the gate, metal AM has seen increased R&D – and adoption – in the past few years.

In 2013, an independent consulting firm, Wohlers Associates, reported that sales of metal 3-D printers increased by 75 percent from the year prior. Over those three years, SmarTech Markets Publishing reported that “a variety of leading automotive manufacturers have greatly advanced their use of [3-D printing] technology, both in print volumes and by moving 3-D printing into more significant roles within the greater manufacturing environment.” The firm forecasts automotive revenue generated by AM to hit $1.1 billion by 2019.

Cultivated consortiums

When it comes to additional technologies that can advance the automotive community’s lightweighting initiatives, Wolcott agrees that cross-company collaborations can benefit the industry as a whole. There’s a lot to consider, and when everyone in the industry is working to meet the same CAFE standards, their questions and concerns are often the same.   

“A number of different solutions are out there,” he says, “and everyone is filtering out and trying to find out which options best fit the business case for each application. And that takes time. You have to go application by application to determine the best options, and then you have to run them through any potential scenarios they could face.”

Wolcott offers up a laundry list of questions that must be addressed: What would a switch to aluminum involve on the manufacturing side? What types of capital investments would be involved? What’s the value proposition? Likewise, what would the challenges with composites be, and what are you willing to pay for? How will customers respond?

As Wolcott indicated in his series of questions, many decisions are based on the individual company’s business model, which means several scenarios could motivate an automaker to keep competitive advantages in-house. In that same breath, however, there are many advantages to collaborations beyond industry events like the GALM lightweighting conference. An example of that is the Auto/Steel Partnership.

automakers panel

According to the Auto/Steel Partnership, the consortium was formed in 1987 with the Steel Market Development Institute’s Automotive Applications Council, FCA US LLC, Ford and General Motors. Since that time, the “Partnership leverages the resources of the automotive and steel industries to pursue research, validation and education that have helped automakers enhance vehicle safety and fuel economy and improve design and manufacturing. Through the Auto/Steel Partnership, automakers and steel companies have worked to drive improvements from concept through realization in vehicles on the road today.”

dr-paul-j-wolcott-206-mid
Dr. Paul J. Wolcott will be one of many speakers at the Lightweight Vehicle Manufacturing Summit in Detroit.

Current joining and welding projects being pursued by the Auto/Steel Partnership include gas metal arc welding (GMAW) of advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) and GMAW fatigue modeling to develop and validate computer-aided engineering models for predicting weld performance in AHSS grades for automotive applications. The consortium is also working to improve joint fatigue in fusion-welded joints of AHSS and overcome the challenges of joining the high carbon equivalent of AHSS.

And those are just the welding and joining projects. The list of benefits brought forth by the Auto/Steel Partnership is long. Add that to the list of benefits that come from other collaborative efforts happening within the auto industry and you might just end up with something as lengthy as Shopsin’s menu in New York.

Auto/Steel Partnership

GALM Intelligence

General Motors

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