LAMP Lights the Way for Grid Cell Innovation Center
This Tuesday, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) celebrated the launch of its first Grid Cell Innovation Center in Michigan, designed to bring industry and academia together with the goal of integrating modeling and simulation into the product lifecycle. This center, the result of NCMS' partnership with Intel and GE, is dedicated to advanced materials and composites will build upon NCMS' previous work with the Lightweight Automotive Materials Program (LAMP).
For the 23 participants and nine research and development projects comprising LAMP, the focus was developing lightweight materials that will improve performance without sacrificing safety through high performance computing-enabled modeling and simulation.
To discuss LAMP and the work we can expect to see out of the Grid Cell, we spoke with Rich Curless of FIVES, a French company that designs carbon composite manufacturing equipment for the aerospace industry. With the support of LAMP's collaborative projects, FIVES went from creating an aircraft fuselage from 3,000 parts all the way down to two, and was interested in applying this work to automotive manufacturing. But in spite of the leap that FIVES made for aerospace, their work was less than convincing for members of the automotive industry.
“There was a little bit of 'Wow, that's a really nice technology, but it's too expensive; we'll never see that in the automotive industry,'" Curless recalled of his conversations with automotive companies.
But beyond skepticism, the greater issue that FIVES ran into was that automakers rely on production cycles that run laps around those for aerospace. As opposed to the five days required to produce a fuselage with carbon composites, automakers demand production times no longer than two minutes.
Not even large manufacturers have been able to bypass this problem. "Boeing recently had to back away from some of the composite requirements for the single-aisle aircraft because they couldn't meet the volume requirements of 40 aircraft a month, so they went back to a fuselage that was being made of aluminum,” Curless said.
But with 85 percent of aerospace parts today being laid up by hand, the door is wide open for better manufacturing methods and more automation, and automotive has plenty of room for improvement as well. There, composites that combined pieces of chopped glass with resins have been in use for some time, but offer only a 23 percent weight saving to steel, whereas aluminum offers 40 percent. However, if carbon fiber could be made a part of this process, the weight saving statistic could jump as high as 70 percent.
“But to achieve those results, you have to have all of the digital know-how to make those calculations on the design of the part and then on manufacturing that part,” Curless explained.
But other LAMP participants illustrated that technology, whether it be in information technology or on the factory floor, isn't necessarily the greatest hurdle for manufacturers looking to innovate. As Steve Reagan of L&L Products underscored just how many small-to-medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) aren't convinced that digital manufacturing tools will offer a cost-effective boom to their business, which Procter & Gamble's Tom Lange seconded by labeling them, "the missing middle that doesn't know they're missing." And with automotive development cycles spanning years, it's especially hard to convince manufacturers in this industry that this is a leap worth making.
“As a vehicle is being designed and developed for that first one that can come off the assembly line and be sold to the public, the system that's in place for that is many years long,” Reagan said. “Until the last nine, ten, 12 months, there will not be a physical vehicle for anyone to test, to ride in, to crash, to do anything on. So there's no way to really know what that performance would be like until you're very close to that job being manufactured and you're very close to having no more flexibility in the way you put it together.”
Speaking to both of these issues was Gary Lownsdale of Plasan Carbon Composites, another LAMP participant. You might recognize Plasan's work if you've seen the mine crew vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company is particularly interested in the balance between a material's weight and durability, as these specialized tanks must be not only resistant to explosives, but need to be highly maneuverable as well.
During the economic downturn, Plasan shifted their focus on composites research, and found that by shrinking the autoclave, five key materials along with nitrogen could all be removed from the heating process, cutting process costs, time, and allowing a greater degree of control than a larger machine would offer.
Processing time was Plasan's first area of attack, which whittled curing time to six minutes and cycle time to 17. But their ultimate goal, which requires additional chemistry and technology advances, is to use LAMP to reach the two-minute goal that Curless referenced to meet volumes of over 100,000 vehicle sets rolling off the assembly line each year.