Light-weighting gaining enthusiasm as channel for reaching fuel economy standards

You may have noticed Ford Motor Co. has been getting a lot of ink lately on its roll 2015 Ford F-150out of the 2015 F-150 pickup made with aluminum body panels, reducing its weight 700 pounds and getting better mileage (up to 30 mpg on the highway). Last week, I spoke with an executive from the engineering consultancy that worked closely with Ford to test and design this next generation pickup. As automakers approach the 54.5 mpg by 2025 fuel economy standard in the US, zero emission vehicles are critical; however, to get past the compliance tipping point, light-weighting is expected to play an even larger role.

David Mason, senior vice president, global automotive at Altair (a global company with its US headquarters in Troy, Mich.), said that the company has been working with automakers for more than 10 years on light-weighting design. Years ago, Altair focused mainly on its computer-based algorithm for simulations such as crash tests. Today, clients are accessing its HyperWorks optimization technology for predictery performance in all categories. Safety is certainly still a priority, but now aerodynamics, noise, and stability, are way up on the list. Fuel economy, environmental concerns, CO2, and CAFE standards are behind most of it. “OEMs are struggling to achieve fuel economy targets,” Mason said.

I asked Mason about the impression I was getting that hardcore pickup truck fans may have concerns about the new F-150 using that much aluminum to transport a lot of gear and passengers. Is it really as tough as Ford brags about in its ads? Mason said that it comes down to finding the “right form for the material located in the right place.” The engineering team had to analyze Ford’s targets for durability, noise, vibration, and crash safety. Adjustments had to be made for the pickup and its payload requirements that are different from a passenger car; the pickup needed more aluminum and stiffness to be able to deliver the payload.  Aluminum is gaining a lot of attention lately as the Ford F-150, the 2013 Range Rover with aluminum structure, and the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette with an aluminum frame, have been grabbing attention.

Altair has created two initiatives to educate interested people on light-weighting and to support light-weight materials’ role in new vehicle design and manufacturing.  The Altair Enlighten Award was kicked off at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) Management Briefing Seminars last year in Traverse City, Mich. BASF Corp. took the first award for its thermoplastic composite front seat pan used by General Motors. Those interested can fill out the nominee form for the next award that will be presented August 4, 2014, at the next CAR conference. The award was launched to encourage public awareness and to bring recognition and creative competition for light-weighting designers.

Its blog, Enlighten, has become a meeting ground for proponents of product weight reduction to debate which materials will prevail – with aluminum, plastic, titanium, and composites getting a lot of discussion and attention lately, Mason said. “There’s been a lot of focus lately in the media about alternative materials,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement – will it be aluminum? Titanium? Composites?”

Automakers appreciate that they can reduce vehicle weight and manufacturing costs using optimization technology and substituting with lighter materials. “They don’t have to change assembly tooling or process,” he said. “They’re removing as much material as possible from the existing design approach.”