September 10, 2016 / agility, best practices, blade life, blade selection, continuous improvement, industry news, material costs, strategic planning
For the last several years, the U.S. auto industry has been a growth driver for many industries, including industrial metal cutting. As we reported in our “Metal Service Center Outlook for 2016,” the automotive sector is one of two industries expected to help metal fabricators “ride out the storm” of today’s uncertain market.
While recent reports have shown that U.S. auto industry sales have started to cool, most experts still believe auto sales will remain strong over the next few years, even if they aren’t breaking any new records. In theory, this is good news for metal fabricators and other companies serving the auto segment. However, sales aren’t the only trend suppliers should be tracking.
According to an article from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the auto industry is in the midst of change, and the supply chain needs to be ready to respond. “It’s not clear how cars will change in the coming years, but automakers and suppliers no longer have the luxury of sitting out the transformation,” the PwC article states. “If you are an executive at an OEM or an auto equipment supplier, your strategic acumen — your ability to place your company in the vanguard of product trends without running afoul of ever more stringent environmental rules — will surely be tested.”
Put simply: if automotive is one of your key customer segments, it’s time to pay attention.
One of the biggest shifts happening within automotive manufacturing has been the growing use of lightweight materials. To meet federal emission standards, a growing number of U.S. automakers like Ford are using lightweight metals to decrease the weight of their vehicles and, therefore, increase the fuel economy. Many in the industry refer to this trend as “lightweighting.”
Of course, with new materials come new equipment and tooling needs, as well as new cutting parameters and techniques. To ensure that fabricators are prepared, below is a short summary of two materials trends worth following:
- Aluminum. As this American Metals Market (AMM) article states, aluminum is now second to steel as the most used material in automotive design. According to AMM, the use of aluminum is growing because it is a fast, safe, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective way to improve performance, boost fuel economy, and reduce emissions. Key aluminum suppliers like Alcoa have been reaping the rewards of this trend and expect growth to continue on a global scale.
As any metal-cutting expert can attest, every material has its own distinct properties that affect how it is cut. Aluminum is a softer material, but it is also abrasive, which can present some machining challenges. According to an article published by Canadian Industrial Machinery (CIM) magazine, aluminum’s abrasive property can wreak havoc on a saw blade, accelerating tooth wear and diminishing blade life. To combat aluminum’s abrasive quality, most manufacturers recommend carbide-tipped band saw blades over bi-metal blades. This is because carbides are harder, tougher, and more durable, Matt Lacroix of LENOX explains in the CIM article. “Carbide tips are slower to wear and better suited to handle the high machining speeds,” Lacroix writes. Other blade factors, such as backing steel and tooth geometry, can also help improve the efficiency of sawing aluminum, he adds. (To read more about cutting aluminum, check out the entire CIM article here.)
- Magnesium Alloys. Although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as aluminum, metals experts quoted here in an article from Canadian Fabricating & Welding believe that magnesium alloys will have a place in lightweight auto design in the future. “The weight reduction we experience using aluminum in place of steel is 40 percent,” Adrian Gerlich, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at Waterloo, tells the magazine. “Using magnesium alloys in place of aluminum sees a further comparative weight reduction of between 30 and 40 percent.”
Gerlich adds that despite its lightweight properties, magnesium alloys do present a host of manufacturing challenges. Because it is less stiff than aluminum, magnesium alloys require the addition of stringers and stiffeners, he explains. In addition, the material is difficult to weld, has to be formed at a higher temperature if it is to be used for stamped parts, and is more susceptible to corrosion. “The oxide of magnesium isn’t inherently protective; it continues to corrode, so careful protection of the material is required,” Gerlich states. Even with these challenges, however, Gerlich and others believe that with more research, magnesium alloys could have huge potential in automotive applications.
Steel Still Reigns—For Now
Even with these new materials hitting the automotive scene, steel will likely continue to be the dominant metal used in automotive manufacturing. According to Automotive World, the average vehicle is still made using between 800kg and 900kg of steel.
As Tim Triplett, editor of Metal Center News, said in an archived editorial, the steel industry won’t likely lose any ground in auto design but, instead, will simply adjust to the trends. “Just as many headlines heralded new developments in lightweight, advanced high-strength steels,” Triplett wrote. “Steelmakers claim the auto industry can meet the government mileage standards by using the new steel alloys, in combination with power train innovations, and at a lower cost than switching parts to aluminum.”
Indeed, reports show that auto manufacturers are already testing the use of lightweight steel alloys, and innovators like GM are even trying mixed-metal manufacturing in which steel and aluminum parts are welded together.
Regardless of which automotive material trends take hold, the point is that fabricators and other suppliers serving this market need to be ready: Do the research, ask the questions, and be ready to adapt accordingly.