Automakers showed off a handful of new vehicles at Detroit’s auto show, but they spent a lot more time talking about mobility solutions, autonomous vehicles, connected cars, and goals of zero emissions and zero automotive fatalities in the not-too-distant future. Computer-controlled safety systems have been growing for decades, but talk of them seemed to peak in January between the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Michigan, and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA US LLC), for example, showed off a self-driving minivan concept targeted at Millenials at CES and had nothing new to show at NAIAS. If you took a drink in Detroit every time you heard the phrase, “As you might have seen at our presentation at CES…” you wouldn’t have left the show sober.
Despite the focus being more on mobility and less on cars and trucks, several manufacturers did show off shiny new metal at NAIAS. As with the 2016 show, those launches focused on important, high-volume cars and SUVs rather than cool-yet-impractical supercars and concept vehicles.
Corrosion resistant and lightweight, aluminum is ideal for hauling goods cross country. Trailers made from aluminum may cost more than steel ones, but users can haul more weight in them and spend less on maintenance. Since 2009, demand for lightweight trailers has nearly tripled.
In Huntsville, Tennessee, Great Dane Trailers wanted to tap into that market with a new all-aluminum trailer and boost production of parts for the combination steel-and-aluminum model.
Senior Manufacturing Engineer Howard Reeve says conditions called for new equipment. “People like them because they don’t rust, and they weigh less. So you can carry more weight on them. We’re trying to have greater market penetration in aluminum trailers, so we needed more capacity. Sales wanted greater capacity to fill orders by large customers.”
Despite high-profile aluminum use in passenger vehicles, such as Ford’s F-150 or Chevrolet’s Bolt EV electric car, the fastest-growing user of the lightweight metal in ground transportation has come from the commercial side. Since 2009, aluminum shipments to trailer and semitrailer producers have grown at a 19.7% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) – far exceeding the 14.8% CAGR posted by cars and light trucks and the 13.5% CAGR noted for all ground transportation by the Aluminum Association trade group.
The plant had been using an aluminum milling machine designed to make screen doors to machine parts for the combination trailers, and a small volume of all-aluminum parts. However, Great Dane engineers had been looking for the proper machine for a long time. The milling machine was the tool they had, not the tool they needed, and Reeve says that the old, high-maintenance machine caused lots of problems.
Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used a German-language operating system that employees didn’t understand. When the PLCs failed, replacing them required weeks to receive shipments. To avoid lengthy downtime, Great Dane had to stock several spares.
“It was a milling machine that never really fit the application,” Reeve says. The machine was intended for precise metal cutting, so it moved slowly. Front and rear cross members don’t need 20µm tolerances, they needed fast cutting times, he adds. “When you have tight tolerances, things fit better and last longer, but you need to set your tolerances to the part you’re making. It’s typically too expensive to have things milled in the trailer industry.”
After meeting with C.R. Onsrud officials at a trade show, Reeve sent the machine maker several aluminum test pieces and asked for sample cuts. C.R. Onsrud Regional Sales Manager Ken Stissel says Great Dane had been considering a 4-axis machine for side milling and drilling of aluminum parts.
“After understanding the application and volumes, I was able to explain and justify the use of a 5-axis spindle. It would provide much more flexibility, less maintenance, and faster cutting,” Stissel says.
He adds that C.R. Onsrud engineers learned so much about the commercial truck and trailer market through projects with customers such as Great Dane that the tool maker developed its X-Series 5-axis CNC machine for that market.
Although it doesn’t use the X-Series, the 5-axis router that C.R. Onsrud supplied to Great Dane is faster than the milling machine it replaced, Reeve says.
After moving all of the parts that had been produced on the milling machine to the C.R. Onsrud router, Great Dane increased the number of parts produced per shift and still had capacity to insource parts it had sent to job shops in the region, paying off its equipment investments more quickly.
“We’re able to get very good products made on the new machine,” Reeve says, adding that the router isn’t as precise as the milling machine had been, but it’s the right tool for the job. As one plant manager noted, Great Dane makes trailers, not watches. “The biggest opportunity for the new equipment is insourcing parts that we were purchasing from machine shops.”
A big factor in the success of the project, Reeve adds, is the similarity of the companies. Both are more than 100 years old, meaning they’ve learned to adapt to changing markets while maintaining reputations for quality and innovation. Location was important as well. Great Dane Trailer engineers and manufacturing managers from the Tennessee plant visited C.R. Onsrud’s North Carolina factory to see how the tools are made.
“I’ve never seen a cleaner production facility,” Reeve says.
Stissel says C.R. Onsrud engineers worked with Great Dane to identify as many opportunities as possible to move production from aging, expensive equipment to modern machines.
“I learned that Great Dane was looking for another machine to cut aluminum plate. I then showed them our twin table machine that would allow them to cut extrusions on one table and aluminum plate on the other table with little to no setup or changeover,” Stissel explains. “The machine has the flexibility to run extrusion or plate on either table. Great Dane liked the ability for them to run parts on one table while setting up the next job or part on the other table, without sacrificing downtime.”
Reeve says buying the router was justified by the reduced costs for the parts due to the machine’s higher speed. The lower price tag for the router helped with the justification, and he says if he factored in downtime reductions, cost savings would be higher.
Gear makers often use bronze alloys because the material can be more durable than steel in many applications. However, bronze is much more expensive than steel, and much of the material ends up as chips on shop floors during manufacturing.
To lower cost, weight, and to make a shaft integral to a gear without using a key, gear blanking company Accurate Specialties Inc. (ASI) has experienced increased interest in its composite blank systems – gear blanks that use cast iron hubs mated to a bronze outer ring cast in place (see image above). ASI provides a near-net finish, then gear makers cut the bronze ring into teeth, leaving the less-expensive hub metal untouched, says Steve Friedrich, sales manager for the Waukesha, Wisconsin-based foundry.
Bronze shrinks slightly more quickly than iron or steel as it cools, so when ASI employees pour a bronze outer ring onto a cast-iron shaft, the ring mechanically fixes itself to the hub as it cools, preventing rotation of the two pieces under load. Engineers design features in the iron hub circumference to increase that mechanical resistance to rotation. Friedrich adds that a lot of engineering know-how goes into the process to ensure that the compressive load created by the shrinking bronze doesn’t crack the iron or steel hub.
ASI is working on new applications to lower weight and material costs, Friedrich says, such as coating an aluminum rotor with thin bronze layer using a thermal spray process – an application that could remove a heavy bronze brake rotor from a utility reel trailer tension brake application.
Don’t let the slight decline for the year fool you, GM had a fantastic 2016. Retail sales were up nearly 2% as GM slashed sales to rental car companies, opting for customers that produce profit margin. Retail sales climbed to 80.4% of GM’s total, up from 78% in 2015. Sales of the newly launched Chevrolet Malibu were up 17% for the year, and highly profitable trucks and crossovers performed well.
The only Detroit automaker to post a gain (1,535 more vehicles than a year ago), Ford took advantage of the growing popularity of trucks and SUVs. A 6.5% increase in truck sales and a 4.3% rise in SUVs made up for the 14.0% dive for the company’s car business.
Toyota’s car-heavy lineup was a tough sell as gas prices remained low and SUVs grew in popularity. In 2015, 51.3% of vehicles sold by Toyota were cars. Last year, that was down to 46.8% – marking the first time Toyota ended a year with more trucks and SUVs sold than cars. RAV4, Highlander, and 4Runner crossovers all posted double-digit growth, but they couldn’t make up for the steep declines for the Camry.
FCA US LLC
Jeep SUVs and RAM trucks kept company sales flat in 2016, making up for steep losses at Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo. FCA US had planned for weaker car sales last year, ending production of the Dodge Dart compact and Chrysler 200 mid-sized sedan during the year. At Chrysler, minivan sales were positive as the outgoing Town & Country and newly launched Pacifica reached 121,437 vehicles, up 24.5% from 2015’s Town & Country sales.
Honda HR-V small crossover sales nearly doubled (up 95.5%), generating nearly all of the company’s sales increase for the year. Unlike Toyota, Honda cars stayed strong in 2016, posting a 1.1% increase. Accord mid-sized sedan sales fell less than 3%, while Civic compact sales were up 9.4%. Honda’s only sour note came from its Acura luxury brand where sales fell 8.9%.
The fastest-growing company of the major, full-line automotive producers, Nissan was able to limit the damage done by falling car sales with strong results from the Maxima sedan (up 55.3%). Car sales fell 2.4%, and truck sales pulled the company into positive territory. Titan full-sized truck sales leapt 80.2% to 21,880 units. Frontier small pickup sales were also higher (38.4%), as were Murano crossovers (38.2%) and Rogue small crossovers (14.9%).
Kia and Hyundai both gained ground, posting all-time sales records, but Kia was responsible for the bulk of the increase. Kia’s Forte compact car defied industry trends and posted a 31% jump, making up for losses from the Optima mid-sized sedan. Solid increases from the Sportage crossover and Sedona minivan cemented Kia’s 3.5% increase. Hyundai gained 1.7% mainly from increased Tucson and Santa Fe crossover sales. Elantra compact cars – Hyundai’s leading seller – were down 13.8%.
Best-selling truck of 2016
Ford F-Series – 40th consecutive year
820,799 | Up 5.2%
Best-selling car of 2016
Toyota Camry – 15th consecutive year
388,618 | Down 9.5%
Percent of sales by vehicle type (seven largest manufacturers, 85% of industry sales)
Trucks/Commercial vehicles 21.6%
Trucks/Commercial vehicles 20.5%
Volkswagen pleads guilty to criminal felony count, civil complaints, agrees to $4.3B settlement
Volkswagen AG (VW) agreed to plead guilty to three criminal felony counts and pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty for software code that shut off diesel emissions controls when vehicles were undergoing testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The company also agreed to pay $1.5 billion to settle civil complaints. A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Michigan returned an indictment charging six VW executives and employees for their roles in the nearly 10-year conspiracy, including one who was arrested in Florida in early January. The others are believed to reside in Germany.
VW CEO Matthias Müller says, “Since all of this came to light, we have worked tirelessly to make things right for our affected customers and have already achieved some progress on this path. The agreements that we have reached with the U.S. government reflect our determination to address misconduct.”
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch says, “Volkswagen’s attempts to dodge emissions standards and import falsely certified vehicles into the country represent an egregious violation of our nation’s environmental, consumer protection, and financial laws... We will continue to examine Volkswagen’s attempts to mislead consumers and deceive the government.” www.justice.gov
Outgoing Obama EPA finalizes fuel economy rules through 2025
A week before Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, President Barack Obama’s administration finalized rules requiring automakers to reach more than 50mpg fuel economy by 2025. Automakers and trade groups hope the incoming president will reverse the decision.
In December 2016, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy proposed that automakers can fulfill higher mileage requirements agreed to in 2012. The regulations included a mid-term review, during which environmentalists, lawmakers, regulators, and automakers were to submit comments, seeking to either strengthen or weaken the standards. That determination wasn’t due until April 2018. Automakers and their allies blasted the ruling.
National Automobile Dealers Association President and CEO Peter Welch says, “The Obama administration just made new cars and trucks thousands of dollars more expensive for America’s working men and women. Expensive and unaffordable new cars will drive Americans into less efficient, less clean, and less safe used cars – undermining the very goals of this policy. We urge the incoming Trump administration to withdraw today’s action.”
Because the regulatory action was the final stage of a long-running EPA rules-making procedure, the incoming Trump administration won’t be able to simply void the policy. Environmental groups have pledged to go to court to fight any attempts to weaken the new rules or delay enforcement. www.epa.gov
EPA accuses Fiat Chrysler of diesel emissions cheating; automaker refutes claims
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US LLC (FCA US) of cheating on diesel emissions for about 100,000 Ram 1500 trucks and Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicles for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 model years. EPA officials claim FCA US failed to disclose engine management software in the diesels that could impact emissions.
FCA US officials say they were disappointed by the ruling, stating the software in question does not impact emissions. The EPA began probing all diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. following Volkswagen’s emissions cheating. While EPA officials say they are still investigating whether the undisclosed software qualifies as a defeat device – its term for hardware or software installed only to trick tests – FCA US executives say the software was not designed for emissions.
“Failing to disclose software that affects emissions in a vehicle’s engine is a serious violation of the law, which can result in harmful pollution in the air we breathe,” says Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “We continue to investigate the nature and impact of these devices. All automakers must play by the same rules, and we will continue to hold companies accountable that gain an unfair and illegal competitive advantage.”
FCA US executives responded, saying, “FCA US diesel engines are equipped with state-of-the-art emission control systems hardware, including selective catalytic reduction (SCR).”
FCA US executives say they spent months providing software details to the EPA and have proposed software updates that could improve emissions performance. The notice of violation was issued in early January 2017, before Donald Trump took office. www.epa.gov