What is Lightweighting? (And why do we need it?)

Lightweighting is one of those rare industry buzzwords that is entirely self-explanatory. There’s no question about what it means: making something less heavy.

However, although a dictionary definition of lightweighting is unnecessary (if you really want one, you can find it here), an explanation is certainly in order. What’s being (or needs to be) made lighter? How is this accomplished, and by whom? Why is it worth the effort? These are the blog-worthy questions we’ll discuss in this post.

Who is Lightweighting and Why?

Lightweighting is most prevalent and relevant in the automotive and transportation industries. These industries produce vehicles that move people or goods from point A to point B – ideally with minimum energy expenditure and expense, and maximum efficiency, safety and comfort. Since there’s a clear correlation between energy expenditure and the weight of the object being moved, the industry’s primary impetus to lightweight seems clear. Less fuel, less money, more profitability. Add to the mix an ever-stricter regulatory climate that dictates ever-tighter emissions standards and fuel efficiency, and the driving force behind lightweighting should be even more clear.

  1. There is a saying – it is heavy because it is heavy. If the vehicle was not designed very effectively and it’s heavy then it means the engine, suspension etc are large and the vehicle is especially heavy. While a lighter design will make it light.
  2. Another view – lightweighting, i.e. weight reduction should be done such that it doesn’t significantly effect structural performance. For example in topology optimization we can reduce 50% of weight and it will reduce stiffness by only ~10-15%. 

The How

Lightweighting is accomplished either through material substitution or reduction. The idea is, of course, to accomplish the same function with the same amount of a lighter material, or less material (or both). And today we’re at an interesting crossroads regarding lightweighting – making this discussion of the “how” especially relevant.

Lightweighting parts via material substitution (plastic or carbon-fiber instead of metals, for example) has been going on for some time, as any car owner will have noticed. Recently, however, automakers realized that they’ve taken this just about as far as they can go.

Currently, the transportation industry is looking at the material reduction for lightweighting. And this is right at the sweet spot where additive manufacturing meets advanced AI-driven generative design tools and topology optimization.

Using cutting-edge generative design software, traditional design can be significantly lightweighted. These tools use the power of machine learning to create structures that are much more efficient – in part owing to their similarity to natural or organic structures – yet offer the same performance as traditional parts.

What’s more, advances in additive manufacturing are enabling these parts to be manufactured faster, more cost-effectively and at scale. The automotive industry was one of the first to embrace additive manufacturing – initially using it for design and prototyping, then tooling. They recognized early on that this technology was a game changer, and today they continue to lead the way in the adoption of 3D printing to develop and produce a new generation of lighter parts.

By way of example, Techniplas, a tier-1 supplier to BMW, Daimler, Ford, and Fiat, is using 3D printing and AI to make parts up to 47% lighter. The solution uses AI to automatically calculate how to minimize the amount of material used to create parts that are equally strong as those produced via traditional manufacturing.

The Bottom Line

Lightweighting is the wave of the future,and the automotive and transportation industries are leading this charge. Withmarket and regulatory changes driving the process, and a perfect storm ofAI-driven design and additive manufacturing technology maturity –lightweighting is changing not only the way our vehicles are produced, but alsothe way we use them.

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