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Developing a high-volume manufacturing process for lightweight cars

Making cars lighter to improve fuel economy and reduce CO2 emissions is an ongoing challenge for automotive OEMs. Using carbon fibre composite materials in vehicle manufacture can deliver substantial weight reductions for components and structures while maintaining high performance. This is a key strategic priority area for the automotive industry to meet challenging vehicle CO2 emissions targets set by the Government.

Back in 2015, Ford Motor Company partnered with WMG, an academic department at the University of Warwick, along with Gestamp and GRM on the Composite Lightweight Automotive Suspension System (CLASS) project. The project focused on weight reduction of a demonstrator component, the tie-blade knuckle (part of the suspension system).

The tie-blade knuckle (part of the suspension system)

The tie-blade knuckle (part of the suspension system)

The Innovate UK-funded study produced an optimised design for a composite part with a steel insert that was 35% lighter than the original, as well as developing a volume manufacturing process.

During the design phase, the tie-blade geometry changed to such an extent that a preforming step was necessary before compression moulding, which modified the original project scope. To contain this within budget, a manual preforming process was developed to create the prototype.

CLASS allowed the team at Ford to see the vast potential of using multi-materials in a single part to reduce weight in their vehicles.

Alan Banks, Lightweighting Innovations Manager at Ford Motor Company, says:

“The outcomes of the CLASS project exceeded our expectations massively. After that project, we had confidence in the potential for carbon-fibre and multi-materials to make our vehicles lighter, but we needed to see how the preforming would work in practice. That’s the challenge we wanted to address in the follow-on project, Enhanced Preforming Capability for High Volume Automotive Composites (EPOCH).”

Moving the research forward
Following the successful completion of the CLASS project, EPOCH, supported by funding from WMG centre High Value Manufacturing Catapult, took this development even further by demonstrating a fully automated solution for the tie-blade part, so that it could be ready for mass production.

Using the new preforming line, now installed in the Materials Engineering Centre (MEC) at WMG, the team produced a new preforming tool with integrated trimming. This meant they could form the part and cut it into shape in one step.

new preforming line, now installed in the Materials Engineering Centre (MEC) at WMG

New preforming line, now installed in the Materials Engineering Centre (MEC) at WMG

Professor Ken Kendall, Head of the Automotive Composites Research Centre (ACRC) at WMG, said:

“As a result of what we learned from trying to cut the material in the CLASS project, we decided that a shearing process would be more effective and accurate. We also developed a bespoke gripper system to maintain tension during forming to prevent wrinkling.”

The gripper system could be controlled remotely, keeping the preform taut and ensuring parts came out right every time. Demonstrating the automation of the preforming process is a critical step forward if this part is to go into production at Ford.

Gestamp, a tier-one supplier to Ford, provided the design, development and product validation on CLASS and, for EPOCH, supplied the patented CLASS steel pressings. For Gareth Bone, Global Innovation Project Manager at Gestamp, this project was all about taking the outcomes of CLASS and bringing them closer to a representative industry process.

Gareth Bone, Global Innovation Project Manager at Gestamp said:

“The prototype we developed in EPOCH was even better quality than the CLASS prototype, it is as stiff as a steel part and can be delivered in 300 seconds, the cycle time for Ford’s existing steel part, despite being more complex because of the multi-materials. This shows that a multi-material solution can be produced at industry rates.”

Watch the full automated process here:

EPOCH automated preform process

Video of EPOCH automated preform process

Demonstrating production readiness
The combination of both CLASS and EPOCH showed that high-volume manufacture of lightweight composite parts is possible, providing a valuable opportunity for Ford to be the first in the industry to use such parts in their vehicles.

Alan said:

“We now understand how to develop and design a multi-material part. The only thing holding us back is getting the materials cost right, as there is currently no-one in the industry mass producing carbon fibre. Ford and other OEMS must put the message out to the supply chain, and once the industry catches up, we will start putting this part into our vehicles. We’re not scared of carbon fibre or multi-materials anymore!”

Because of the success of these two projects, both Ford and Gestamp are taking part in a follow-on study, CHASSIS (Composite Hybrid Automotive Suspension System Innovative Structures), to investigate hybrid materials for a full Transit van chassis within Ford’s target price range. WMG continues to develop their preforming capability and apply the knowledge gained from CLASS and EPOCH as a supply partner on the CHASSIS project.

Developing a high-volume manufacturing process for lightweight cars

Gareth from Gestamp described how the momentum generated by the projects supported their Advanced Technology & Application Chassis team comprising ten project managers working with their global R&D teams. He said:

“Innovation is key to our business as we want always to deliver to our clients best-in-class solutions for their vehicles. We are focusing on innovations that use the right material in the right place for the right application. And the scope of hybrid projects enable us to explore this area, the main challenge as Alan banks refers to is cost, for these composite materials to be launched on a production product”

Professor Kendall comments:

“In EPOCH we have been able to demonstrate the full automation of preforming in high volume composites. We will continue to support Ford Motor Company and the other project partners to take this project all the way to production. Now that we have the preform line at WMG, we’ve seen interest from a number of companies, from SMEs to OEMs and Tier Ones looking to make use of this unique capability.”

Companies: University of Warwick

Industries: Automotive and Road Transportation

Terms: Business

This article has been edited by Basalt.Today
This article has been written on JEC Composites Magazine
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