Leading the way to high-speed and cost-effective manufacturing of lightweight automotive parts

- Ottawa,

Automobiles have been evolving since the invention of the combustion engine. Over time, while the automotive industry has undergone significant changes, automakers have focussed mostly on improving engine efficiency and performance, as well as incorporating electronics to control various operational functions of cars. However, in the last few decades, the need for more energy‑efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles has sparked a new challenge.

As technological advances have allowed the creation of new lightweight materials like aluminium and high‑performance polymer composites, adapting manufacturing processes to mass‑produce vehicle parts made from these high‑tech materials still represents a change of great complexity today. To help industry meet this challenge, experts in advanced polymer composites from the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre have mobilized the entire supply chain, and in 2017, launched a new industrial research and development (R&D) group called STAMP Composites.

The goal of this industrial R&D group, which ended in April 2021, was to address the challenges faced by the automobile industry related to the manufacturing of high‑performance thermoplastic composites and enable them to gain new capabilities, new markets and increase their competitiveness. This collaborative initiative brought together industrial partners from the entire automotive supply chain to come up with a low‑cost and high‑speed manufacturing process of advanced thermoplastic composites.

Developing a high‑volume manufacturing process for composites parts

In recent years, the ground transportation industry has shown a growing interest for the use of high‑performance polymer composite materials to reduce the weight of vehicles and increase their energy efficiency. However, process cycle‑time reduction for the manufacturing of high‑performance composites parts would enable increased adoption of these materials in several mass‑produced applications. This technical barrier constitutes a critical challenge for the automotive industry.

One of the most promising processes for manufacturing high‑volume composite parts is the forming‑stamping process, a process similar to the metal stamping process which can be applied to the production of thermoplastic composites. To do so, the composite material is first heated in an external oven above the softening temperature of the polymer matrix and is then quickly transferred to a press where it is stamped to the desired shape. Until now, little work had been done on the development of this process and its integration into an industrial environment in Canada. Additionnally, very little expertise is currently available on rapid, non‑destructive characterization techniques suitable for the inspection of stamped parts.

"Many factors played a decisive role in the creation of the STAMP Composites group. With our expertise in high‑performance composites, we were able to propose a solution that could address several fundamental issues identified by the industry and our partners," explains David Trudel‑Boucher, Senior Researcher at the NRC's Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre, and technical lead for the group. "We wanted to capitalize on the existing capabilities of automakers to introduce a new, faster and more efficient manufacturing process that would facilitate technological transfer," he added. Manufacturing costs and speed of execution were key elements considered when defining the project, as well as product quality and ensuring an efficient and speedy transfer of know‑how.

Reliable composite parts for the benefit of the entire automotive supply chain

STAMP Composites brought together various companies like original equipment manufacturers (OEM), tier 1 and parts manufacturers, tool makers, and material producers to pool their expertise and give them access to the NRC's researchers and specialized facilities. Technical research expertise in non‑destructive inspection was also provided by the Centre technologique en aérospatiale (CTA) to complement the NRC's offering.

For Nathalie Legros, Program Leader, Polymer and Composite Products Manufacturing, for the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre, "building an ecosystem with multiple industrial partners to share the development costs, de‑risk the technology, and give access to unique lab‑scale and large‑scale infrastructure is an effective R&D model that allows the NRC to take research innovation from the lab to the marketplace."

This initiative has allowed the team to meet several key goals, namely to develop and optimize a composite stamping process, select thermoplastic composite materials, adapt assembly techniques and procedures, produce a technology demonstrator, and conduct performance testing. One significant result from this project has been the creation of a unique vehicle part that will be tested in the short term.

"STAMP Composites was a great platform to fabricate a full‑scale technology demonstrator that will be road‑tested by the OEM in the near future. We are proud of our achievement and are looking forward to launching STAMP Hybrids, a new muti‑partner group to continue advancing and optimizing our solution by further reducing the manufacturing costs using a one‑step metal/composite material stamping process," adds Legros.

Helping the industry improve vehicle performance with high‑tech parts

As the world is shifting to low‑carbon modes of transportation, using lightweight materials can considerably help reduce the environmental impact of vehicles by lowering carbon emissions produced by traditional combustion engines as well as by increasing the driving range of electric vehicles.

"At Magna, we are focussed on delivering products that help customers achieve their sustainability goals, including reaching a carbon‑neutral future and improving fuel economy. STAMP Composites' solution allows a 50% weight reduction compared to current metallic solutions, has a cycle time of less than 1 minute per part, and uses a process that can easily be adapted to existing infrastructure. We are proud to have contributed to the success of this project", says Brian Krull, Global Director of Innovation for Magna Exteriors.

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