A perfect storm of social and regulatory changes, AI-driven generative design, and advances in additive manufacturing are bringing automotive lightweighting into the mainstream.
By Avi Reichental, CEO, Techniplas Digital
Since the widespread adoption of industrial technology began in the late 18th century, there have been only a handful of instances where a combination of social change, technological advancement and public policy converged to create the perfect environment to precipitate exponential change.
Today, we are witnessing just such a perfect storm in automotive lightweighting. The result will be a fundamental change in the way people and goods move from one place to another.
What exactly is driving the automotive lightweighting revolution, and how will its effects continue to emerge? To understand this, we need to take a deep dive into both the technological and social/regulatory sides of the equation.
Social and regulatory changes drive demand, but efficiency drives change
Environmental concerns like global warming are driving governments worldwide to demand changes from carmakers with strict emissions and fuel efficiency standards. In addition, consumers are beginning to take vehicle efficiency into account, and manufacturers are being forced to adapt.
But pure vehicle weight considerations are not the primary driving force behind the move to lightweighting. Manufacturers are prioritizing not only vehicular efficiency (of which weight is a key factor), but also overall manufacturing and operational efficiency.
Thus, social and regulatory demands have moved the ball into the manufacturing court. Yet what’s truly driving the lightweighting revolution and making it economically and ecologically viable to lightweight on a massive scale is the technological revolution that’s enabling the design and at-scale production of lightweighted parts.
AI-driven generative design is transformational
AI-driven generative design is lightweighting’s secret sauce.
The reason? Lightweighting by definition relies on either material substitution or reduction – achieving the same function with the same amount of a lighter material or less material. We’ve essentially reached the cost-benefit breaking point for material substitution, and thus the automotive industry has turned to material reduction for lightweighting. And material reduction is where AI-driven generative design truly shines.
AI-driven generative design transforms CAD from an electronic drawing board to a co-designer. Novel solutions created via generative design have shattered existing design paradigms, making the production of organically inspired structures – which can optimize materials usage and radically lower weight without compromising integrity – a reality.
Additive manufacturing brings generative design to life
Without the ability to produce amazing AI-driven designs at scale, the lightweighting revolution would be stuck in the laboratory. Thus, the final element of this “perfect lightweighting storm” is Additive Manufacturing (AM). Today, the automotive industry has the capability, tools, and experience to produce the complex and lightweight geometries created by generative design cost-effectively, rapidly, and at scale.
AM enables vehicle manufacturers to produce millions of the same parts or millions of one-of-a-kind parts. This turns conventional manufacturing wisdom on its head and provides automotive manufacturers a new degree of freedom that it has not previously experienced.
So where does lightweighting come in? The fact is that the components being created by generative design can only be practically manufactured using additive techniques.
Thus, the next generation of lightweighting is tied intrinsically to AM. And this is where things get fascinating. Because now, generative designs are being optimized for AM. Complex geometry is no longer a limitation, but an enabler. Tooling is no longer a must, and more parts can be combined into homogenous units at the design stage, without assembly – lowering part count and (you guessed it) weight.
The bottom line
Automotive manufacturers were early AM adopters – using it for design and prototyping for decades. They realized that this technology was a game changer, yet material performance, computing power and scalability were holding them back.
Today, processes are more cost effective, more scalable, and development cycles are shorter. Today, 3D-printed parts are being produced on a mass scale, and the foundation of traditional manufacturing is being rocked. With the addition of powerful and effective AI-driven generative design, automotive lightweighting today is limited less by technology than by pure imagination.