Smarter, Lighter Car Design: A 2017 Automotive Manufacturing Report
As technology evolves, the way we design cars is also evolving; with heightened awareness of manufacturing’s impact on the environment and the increasing interconnectivity of devices through the Internet of Things (IoT), automobiles are becoming both lighter and smarter.
Efforts to enhance energy efficiency and sustainability have impelled auto manufacturers to begin using lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber in lieu of traditionally heavier steel panels. According to the Department of Energy, making the switch to lighter alternatives can reduce a car’s weight by up to 10% and boost the fuel economy by 6-8%.
As for connectivity, more and more vehicles are being equipped with wireless access for integration with users’ other devices. In the past year alone, about 20 million connected cars shipped to dealerships — and about 380 million are projected to be on the road by 2021.
These shifting design trends are not only changing cars’ exteriors but also the types of parts used in interiors and bodies. To capture the potential of this business opportunity, automakers must make adjustments to their regulations, part designs, and manufacturing processes, as well as develop better relationships with suppliers.
Creating New Designs to Meet New Regulations
Experts project steady growth in light vehicle sales over the next 10 years, as manufacturers worldwide are increasingly focused on building more fuel-efficient vehicles. In fact, as fuel economy regulations continue to tighten, U.S. and European automakers will be expected to average more than 60 miles per gallon by 2025.
American auto manufacturers have begun using lightweight materials as the first step toward achieving this goal, and it’s already paying off. When Ford reduced the weight of its F-Series trucks in 2014 by swapping out steel for aluminum, the following year’s F-150 had the best mileage of any gasoline pickup in the United States — all while maintaining its position as the best-selling domestic vehicle of any kind (by a large margin).
The same principles of fuel efficiency also apply to all types of smaller components used in these vehicles. For example, CGR recently developed a solution for Ford diesel truck engines that were experiencing shutdowns during snow and ice conditions; any time the air filter intake area was clogged with snow, the engine would use excess fuel and eventually shut down from a lack of air flow.
To resolve this issue, we supplied a waterjet-cut urethane airflow solution, adding an 80-PPI (pores per inch) filter foam to allow the passage of air, regardless of environmental conditions. Our team provided five different prototype parts in various shapes and porosity levels. The final version, selected by Ford, is now in full production for all their diesel truck models.
Even small design tweaks can have major environmental impacts
As another example, our 3M Thinsulate — an alternative material choice for acoustic automotive applications — greatly enhances sound insulation and acoustic absorption without adding unnecessary weight to a vehicle. Simply adhering a few square centimeters of this polyester and polypropylene non-woven fiber blend to a car’s interior panels, seatbacks, doors, luggage compartments, HVAC equipment, and engine undercovers allows for improved functioning without added weight.
As the push for sustainability continues, you’ll notice that modifying even the most basic parts of a car can improve its fuel efficiency. To meet changing regulations, forward-thinking automakers and car component contract manufacturers have already begun adjusting their designs accordingly.
Establishing New Processes for Shifting Demands
The rapid assimilation of technology into smart cars means automakers are working more closely with tech companies — and being forced to reconcile their distinct design processes. While automotive manufacturers typically like to take their time developing one product before moving forward with high-volume production, software companies prefer to “fail and fix” through a rapid prototyping process. To successfully integrate with the latest technologies, car makers will need to quicken their design processes to match.
The Kaizen methodology is crucial to this pre-production experimentation process. A Japanese business philosophy famously used by Toyota, Kaizen promotes a culture of continuous improvement through collaboration across departments. After just a few months of utilizing this approach, companies can quickly identify opportunities for process improvements and cost savings, allowing for maximum production efficiency and minimal assembly line backlog.
Many automakers are putting this methodology into practice through additive manufacturing — designing parts for vehicles with special software and using the geometry to print a 3D model. This form of rapid prototyping places a physical part in the designer’s hands in a matter of days or even hours, instead of taking weeks to design and build. In an industry that requires hundreds of small parts to complete each product, automakers simply can’t afford to wait.
Even after aligning their prototyping processes with their tech business partners’, traditional auto manufacturers still lack some of the specific technologies needed to make connected, intelligent cars — features like web networking, sensors, and software. This skill deficit has been an invitation for high-tech companies like Apple and Google to begin creating proprietary critical components for increasingly autonomous automobiles’ networking and communications capabilities.
Developing Better Relationships with Suppliers
Despite the excitement involved in building lighter, smarter cars, automakers cannot allow budding business opportunities to detract from their existing supplier relationships. According to a 2016 North American Automotive OEM-Supplier Working Relations Index Study from Mississippi-based consulting firm Planning Perspectives Inc., suppliers ranked auto OEMs’ interaction efforts as “adequate,” at best.
Planning Perspectives President John Henke added, “At a time of record profits when the automakers should be investing in building more collaborative relations with their suppliers, the major indicators of this year’s study suggest this isn’t happening.”
Price negotiations appear to be one of the biggest strains on these relationships and have the potential to greatly hurt profits. Car makers spend up to 70-80% of their revenue on auto parts from suppliers, but by being too aggressive during negotiations, automakers are not only failing to receive the discounts they’re looking for, they’re also frustrating suppliers in the process.
OEMs — and purchasing departments, especially — will need to invest more resources into employee training and partnership programs at every level in order to build trust with suppliers. It may seem like a nonessential focus now, but having solid, reliable supplier relationships is critical for cost savings and productivity when business isn’t booming.
Car makers spend up to 70-80% of their revenue on auto parts from suppliers.