Alan Taub Pushes Lightweighting Agenda with Advanced Materials
The New Lightweighting Standards at ALMMII and University of Michigan
Alan Taub leads the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII) and University of Michigan Materials Science and Engineering Department to develop new lightweight materials to improve fuel efficiency for industry and commercial application.
Alan Taub is the Chief Technical Officer of ALMMI and faculty of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. In his role as an educator, Taub is conducting research in advanced materials and processing and has a leadership role as CTO of ALMMII.
AMI: We understand that the University of Michigan research labs that you are working with or supervise are focussed on the whole process of developing lightweight materials for auto, industry, sea, air, etc. Could you explain how you are currently achieving this reduction in weight or what strategies you are pursuing?
First of all our institute is focused on lightweight metals in response to the award we won for a new Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The metals we’re concentrating on are advanced high-strength steel, aluminium, titanium and magnesium; and each of those has its right place in the right component in either the car, truck, armoured vehicle, ship or aircraft. Our industry partners are defining the applications with high priority and we’re coming up with a portfolio of projects to address those needs.
AMI: How do you see the market size in growth rate for the commercial application of new lightweighting solutions in innovations going from here forward?
Every one of the sectors that I mentioned has an agenda to reduce weight. For the commercial side it is focused primarily on fuel economy so whether it’s an aircraft, heavy truck or car I think you recognize your consumers are asking for improved fuel economy. On the defense applications where they’re dealing with logistical support the focus is still fuel economy; where it’s a battlefield application it’s much more the weight enabled mission capability. In the end we’re about scaling up laboratory invention and developing the manufacturing processes so those weight reductions can be done first of all at lower cost and with quality and robustness.
AMI: How rapidly is the market for “advanced lightweight materials” for real world applications expanding?
The agenda for light weighting has always been on the radar screen but recently it has accelerated. The weight reductions that have been attained by design optimization have pretty much been implemented across all the sectors which means the next step is to introduce the new advanced light weight metals. The challenge there has always been to get the manufacturing process at the right scale and in particular with the right cost. As the cost of fuel goes up the ability to absorb the higher advanced metal cost is on the horizon. Whether its Ford’s announcement on the aluminium F150 or some of the advances you’re seeing on advanced high strength steel to reduce weight, it is clear that industry is accelerating their plans for implementation and our job is to get the processes right so it can be done at the right cost.
AMI: Do you currently see cost or any other particular hurdles that are the most difficult to get past for the adoption of a new material?
First of all you have to get the cost of barriers reached. When you have a transportation device, whether it’s a car or plane, there are a number of ways you can improve fuel economy – e.g. - better aerodynamics, more efficient propulsion systems or reduced weight. We’re at the point now where using the advanced materials for weight reduction is starting to occur in big ways so whether it’s Boeing 777, the Dream Liner, with carbon-fiber composites or the advanced light weight metal structures it’s really accelerating because the value equation is now here.
AMI: There’s a sense that many technologies get cheaper when they’re manufactured in greater volumes but until they’re cheaper they won’t be used and therefore they won’t be manufactured in greater volumes. I think I’ve seen predictions with lithium iron car batteries they were manufactured in sufficiently large volumes they might only cost a third what they currently do. How does that apply to lightweight materials?
In my experience most companies understand well the economies of scale but the challenges we’re taking on are more than that. You need a lower cost manufacturing process to bring the cost down as well. That’s true in batteries, you need material inventions, and it is true in lightweight metals so it’s more than just getting the volumes up. It’s finding lower cost ways to produce the metal and make it into its components. You need both of those advancements to see the more wide-spread use of these materials.
AMI: It’s our understanding in the automotive sector that as you introduce lighter weight materials into portions of the vehicle you have novel problems of joining between the new kinds of materials and the old kinds of materials, the attachments, how do you overcome this issue?
Yes, let me address that. I say if you go back, and let me speak in the auto industry , 10-20 years ago, the assumption was that in the same way the base starting vehicle was basically a low carbon steel vehicle, that we would be migrating towards either aluminium intensive or polymer-composite intensive. I think we’ve gotten more a lot sophisticated and the answer is now a multi-material vehicle. It’s the right material in the right part of the vehicle and that requires the development of robust multi- material joining, whether its aluminium to steel or aluminium to magnesium. As a result, one of the major focus areas of our institute is in fact not only fabricating the components but developing the processes for multi-material joining.
AMI: I would assume that if one supplier is providing a new material component and it has to work in conjunction with a larger system design by an OEM, this will require some kind of novel form of back and forth communication between the two so that everybody is satisfied that the joining will occur properly, is this requiring a higher level of intercompany communication because of the technology?
It’s more than just joining that requires the early integration of the full supply chain into the technology development. If you would go back to 20 years ago these development were done serially. Now, in order to get things done faster most companies are doing early involvement of their supply chain so that you get not only the right manufacturing process but you get the best integrated design. In fact, in our institute projects, we’re structuring it to involve the whole supply chain from the material supplier to the fabricator to the OEM.
AMI: Are there particular technical challenges involved in back integrating the possible multi-material solutions into the material properties that you guys are developing?
I think one of the new enabling tools is a methodology called ICME, Integrated Computational Materials Engineering. It used to be that if you were doing a new material development and its associated manufacturing process, it was mostly done by trial and error experimentation. Now there are multi-scale modelling tools that are approaching the point where we can do parallel material and manufacturing development with truly model guided experimentation; and so it’s that new emerging tool kit that I see as an enabler to develop this next generation of alloys and manufacturing processes. In fact it’s the backbone of the way we’re going to do our projects in the institute.
AMI: Are these tools widely adopted by the whole industry?
First of all our institute has just been awarded this year and we’re ramping up. We have a good assortment of large companies, small companies, and universities. The ICME initiative has been gaining traction at the federal and global level over the past few years and right now the tools are very specific in nature. Only a few large and small companies have the capability to use those tools and part of our institute charter is to get them to the point where they’re available to more people, a wider use across the supply chain and the industrial sectors. It’s a tool kit that is just now becoming ready for broader use.
AMI: I assume at this point adhesives, even guys who do specialised riveting or welding, are they members of your coalition?
We’re still completing our membership list and unfortunately we haven’t published it yet but it ranges from OEMs to Tier 1 manufacturers, material suppliers as well as specialized companies like fasteners, like welders, like casting companies and at this point we have over 60 members involved and we’re beginning to round out that membership team and begin our projects. I should also mention that our projects are targeted to not only to develop the technology but also to train the next generation work force to use it.
AMI: Through our interviews in the additive manufacturing space, one of the issues we have come across is the lack of databases of materials and information causes issues of reliability and proven methods. In other words, the sharing of information into a global database would greatly advance the industry. Are you finding similar problems in the lightweighting as well?
Our area is more mature than the additive area, blacksmithing goes back a long time as compared to additive manufacturing. But relative to the availability of robust material data I think that is a general opportunity for the entire materials engineering community. In fact when I mentioned the ICME program it has the several aspects, one of which is to create what we call the material commons where companies feel comfortable sharing their material data as well as the tools that take advantage of the data being available. Our ICME program as part of this national initiative is addressing this area. What people are starting to recognize is if you’re spending your resources to reproduce something somebody already knows that is not efficient. It’s really how you use the data that is more important than your closely held data. So the industry is starting that transition and that’s where an institute like ours can play a role in terms of getting companies together to share pre competitive work.
AMI: What I was getting at was so much the specifics it was the sense of are they chosen to reflect a specific need of a particular OEM what says what I need is certain part that will do this at this price or are they more abstract in nature generalised or something?
Our institute like the other new manufacturing institutes are here to take developments out of the lab and make them available for commercial implementation so we are not a basic research institute. All of our projects have at least one OEM or Tier 1 that has defined the component of interest then we get together the research team to enable that. Any project we take on has at least one targeted application. We have very clear requirements that need to be met for commercialization. The way we’re operating in first phase of that work is a project that’s shared among several of our members. But then we’re also set up so that any of our companies can come in and take the final implementation readiness step using the same resources in a proprietary manner.
AMI: Do you work only with members of your institute or do ever seek out any R&D work to outside consultants, labs, etc.
First of all we have our industry member base. We also have a very expansive research partner base, the leading university in metals in this country as well as the national and federal labs. Our first round of projects is what we’re calling targeted member projects so that we can get them running quickly, we’re forming our project teams from our current members. In the future we’ll also be broadcasting requests for proposals in certain areas so it’s going to be a combination but to get us going quickly our first projects are among our existing members.
AMI: You guys seem to be taking an admirable agnostic point of view at solving these problems. Can I ask you about your role in nano-particle additions to polymer composites?
First of all that’s outside the scope of our institute. In my university role one of my research areas is nano-particle additions into carbon-fiber composites. General Motors’ 10 years ago commercialized nano clay additions to non-fiber reinforced polymers. The challenge is now making it work for a wider range of applications. What’s been known for some time is that small additions of these nano-particles whether its nano-clays or carbon nano-tubes, meaning perhaps 1-2 % additions, can lead to remarkable improvements of properties. However, the results have been highly variable. Our work is focused on making it reproducible and ensuring that the processing does not break up the particles.
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