Less Weight is More

Lightweighting has become a top priority for design engineers.

Jamie GoochDespite some recent progress, the majority of Americans are still overweight, and so are the products design engineers create for them. From cars and planes to laptops and phones, thin is in, but dieting isn’t easy. Removing weight requires a new mindset, new investments all along the supply chain and the courage to try something different. Advances in material science, optimization software technologies and government mandates in the U.S. and Europe have converged to make lightweighting a top priority for design engineers.

Ford Motor Co. is a prime example. The company intends to shave 700 pounds off the 2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck, and it recently unveiling a concept car that is 25% lighter than a standard sedan.

“Our goal was to investigate how to design and build a mixed-materials, lightweight vehicle that could potentially be produced in high volume, while providing the same level of safety, durability and toughness as our vehicles on the road today,” said Matt Zaluzec, Ford technical leader, Global Materials and Manufacturing Research, in a press release.

The key phrase from Zuluzec is “high volume.” Automakers have been investigating and implementing lightweighting for years to increase speeds in race cars, for instance. But high-volume production opens Pandora’s box. Are enough high-strength steels and composite materials available? How will different materials be joined together? What changes to the manufacturing line will be needed? Will customers accept a lighter aluminum body “Ford tough” pickup truck? Will a lighter vehicle be safe? Will it cost more? Will service centers invest in the equipment needed to repair the new materials?

A Material Issue

Ford isn’t alone in its efforts to optimize its designs to be lighter, or in working through the many ramifications of using new materials. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner consists of more than 50% composites, which the company says equates to a 20% weight savings vs. more conventional aluminum designs. Airbus says the use of composites, titanium and advanced aluminium alloys in its new A350 XWB reduce overall fatigue and corrosion maintenance tasks by 60%. Bombardier is flight testing its CSeries of aircraft that use composites in the wings, empennage and rear fuselage, as well as aluminum lithium in the main fuselage, all of which it says helps the A350 XWB weigh up to 12,000 lbs. less than some similarly sized aircraft.

Not content to let composites and new aluminum alloys push them out of the market, the steel industry is working with manufacturers to incorporate high-strength steels that are lighter than traditional materials.

Where aerospace and automotive lead, many industries are sure to follow, leaving design engineers tasked with catching up.

Design Fundamentals

Changing a product’s material requirements equates to many challenges and opportunities for design engineers. Optimization and simulation are the keys to using less materials or replacing tried-and-true traditional materials with lighter weight ones. With the right simulation data, topology optimization software can tell design engineers where material is important, structurally, to a design. That knowledge can open new avenues for design engineers to explore, ultimately resulting in completely different and innovative designs. New materials, when combined with advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing, also allow designers to reduce complexity and weight by consolidating parts.

The benefits to lightweighting are as numerous and varied as the design, simulation and testing questions they prompt. Design engineers will have to expand their skill sets yet again to take advantage of the capabilities inherent in new materials.

Some answers to those lightweighting questions may come from two new manufacturing institutes recently announced by the White House: the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute, based in the Detroit area; and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, based in Chicago. Additionally, an Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute is also being established.

The institutes are part of the Administration’s push to create hubs to bridge the gap between applied research and product development by bringing together companies, universities and other academic and training institutions, and Federal agencies to co-invest in key technology areas.

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About the Author

Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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