Lightweighting’s New Phase

Five years ago, automotive lightweighting was supposed to be steel versus aluminum, but the consensus today is that mixed materials is the way to go

Nexa3D, a manufacturer of SLA 3D printers, has made a series of announcements this week, all aimed at expanding its 3D printing business and client base. Among the announcements, Nexa3D has enlisted UK-based AM solutions provider CREAT3D and South Korean 3D printer supplier Brulé as new resellers. To date, the company has reseller agreements with companies in North America, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Britain and South Korea. In addition to the reseller network partnerships, Nexa3D has also brought on a new member to its Board of Directors: Jeff Holden, the former chief product officer at ride-sharing giant Uber.

Earlier this decade, the auto industry moved to lighten cars and trucks. It was supposed to be a competition between steel, long the dominant vehicle material, and aluminum. The latter got a boost when Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., bet big on aluminum, making aluminum bodies for its F-150 and Super Duty pickups.

However, no outsized rush to aluminum took place. The material is being used more than it once was, making up a variety of parts. Aluminum is making more incremental advances since Ford’s trucks took on aluminum bodies. Meanwhile, the steel industry has countered with a mix of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels. Such steels are stronger, meaning less of the material is needed, reducing weight.

A consensus has emerged. The future for the industry is a mix of materials, a mix that will vary from vehicle to vehicle. It’s also likely to be a more complex future, with composite materials making inroads in the long run.

“You have to take into account all sorts of factors,” said Jay Baron, retired president of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), Ann Arbor, Mich. Vibration and stiffness figure into the equation, he said. And there’s cost. “It’s much more than weight and strength.

‘Swing Back’

James Truskin, technical fellow-body advanced architecture at FCA US LLC, Auburn Hills, Mich., described how that automaker has viewed the materials evolution.

“We did see a strong swing to consider all-aluminum vehicles,” he said. “It started to swing back with a mix of steel content. It was a challenge to meet safety tests with aluminum. We stayed the course with steel because we saw these new steels coming.”

At the same time, he said, “For our volumes and our infrastructure, we’ve been strategic in picking the right material” to reduce vehicle weight.

The aluminum industry, meanwhile, likes its prospects. “It is by no means slower growth,” said Ganesh Panneer, vice president and general manager, automotive at industrial aluminum supplier Novelis Inc., Atlanta, and a previous vice chair at the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group.

Studies have indicated aluminum growth in vehicles to 2025 and beyond, he said. The material has applications for closures such as doors, deck lids and fenders.

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