2015 Outlook: Vehicle materials, structures to shed more weight

Efforts to replace steel with lighter materials will be augmented by optimizing component mass.

February 18, 2015

Have you ever heard the idiom, “Leave no stone unturned?” As vehicle designers and manufacturers deal with the current regulatory environment, they are increasingly looking under every stone for lightweighting opportunities. Today’s cars and trucks are shedding nuts and bolts, heavy fabrics, and weighty steel panels. Instead, they incorporate advanced materials for making vehicles lighter, from high-strength steel, aluminum, and composites for structural applications to lightweight foam and natural fibers in slimmer seats and instrument panels.

Through this kind of lightweight material substitution (LMS), the auto industry has made considerable progress, but not nearly enough yet to meet the 54.5mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for 2025. In the years ahead, consumers will continue to find new materials and lighter components. To arrive at the finish line successfully, however, manufacturers also need to find ways to remove unnecessary material from the vehicle, without compromising performance or safety.


Automotive aluminum outlook

The Aluminum Association 2015 predictions:

  • Pickups will contain the most aluminum at 548.9 lb per vehicle
  • The total aluminum content for the expected production of 17.46 million vehicles will equal nearly 7 billion lb
  • Total North American light vehicle aluminum consumption will increase by 28% in 2015 from 2012
  • Consumption will surpass all records set in previous decades by 1 billion lb
  • Aluminum hood penetration will increase from 34% in 2012 to 48% in 2015


Automotive steel outlook

The international worldsteel association 2015 predictions:

  • Buyers will purchase 1.6 billion metric tons of steel, a 2% increase from 2014, matching 2014’s growth rate
  • Companies in NAFTA countries will buy 141 million metric tons of steel, slightly outpacing the global growth with a 2.2% increase, down significantly from 2014’s 6.4% growth
  • The majority of growth in NAFTA will be in Mexico where several new automotive service facilities opened in 2014


Optimization technology

Physically eliminating material – lightweight material reduction (LMR) – can involve making the walls of structures thinner and lighter, punching holes in metal to remove non-essential weight, or redesigning the entire look and configuration of a system or vehicle so that it uses less material.

The keys to applying this two-prong approach to vehicle engineering are determining exactly where material can be removed without affecting the strength, integrity, and durability of a vehicle; how much should be removed; and what the final shape of the components should be to produce the lightest system with the best performance at a viable cost.

Answering these questions is the role of optimization technology.

Increasingly, designers are using computer simulation tools, such as Opti-Struct from Altair, to define the optimal shape and size of vehicle components. These optimization tools evaluate the effects of using various materials to measure the tradeoff between performance and lighter weight, often coming up with entirely new configurations that they never would have considered on their own to produce a lightweight part.

Volkswagen used optimization to cut bracket weight by 22%. Tallent Automotive, a subsidiary of Spanish automotive supplier Gestamp, reduced the mass of a chassis by 25%. Ford Motor Co. used topology optimization to help decide on shape and material distribution, reducing the mass of a bracket by 27% while improving performance by nearly 30%. As a result of modifying this bracket, the company saved more than $1.1 million in the first year of production.

Suppliers and OEMs will likely be more creative in using optimization in 2015. Using technology at the early design stage, rather than simply to validate or change a prototype, reduces the time required to complete the design. Optimization simulations can produce a wide range of designs and recommend the best ones to serve as the basis for a lightweight component.


Enlighten Award

Altair’s annual Enlighten Award highlights the auto industry’s achievements in weight savings. Jaguar won in 2014 for developing a premium lightweight architecture concept that applied a holistic approach to removing weight from the body, chassis, and powertrain. By using recycled materials and aluminum, magnesium, composites, and thermoplastics, Jaguar reduced weight by 40% to 45% compared with conventional steel bodies.

This 2013 winner showcased a thermoplastic composite front-seat pan that BASF designed with optimization technology to reduce wall thicknesses. The optimized component weighed 45% less than the original design.


Advanced manufacturing

New manufacturing technologies, especially additive manufacturing or 3D printing, will allow designers to choose the purest lightweight design configuration.

In 2015, adoption of optimization technology will gain momentum in the race to drive weight out of vehicle components and bring them to market faster. Advanced technology will allow designers, engineers, and manufacturers to build sleeker and lighter vehicles to meet the challenge of 2025, offering new insights into the shape of things to come.




About the author: David Mason is senior vice president of global automotive business at Altair and can be reached at info@altair.com.