Panel discussion; ‘Innovations in Lightweighting Technologies and Their Impact on Vehicle Performance’

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Is Lightweighting the Future of Indian Automotive Innovation?

Lightweighting in automation is becoming a reality in many countries across the globe, but where does India stand in this context? See what experts have to say about materials, challenges, costs, solutions, and the future of lightweighting in Indian automation.

The afternoon witnessed a conversation on ‘Innovations in Lightweighting Technologies and Their Impact on Vehicle Performance,’ and shed light on how lightweighting is not just about sleek designs, but oh-so-critical in making them eco-friendly and efficient. Discussing the topic were RT Gugale, Senior General Manager, Purchase, TATA AutoComp Systems Ltd.; BP SHIV, Vice President, TAFE Engineering Plastics Division; and Vilas Baviskar, Assistant General Manager, Corporate Purchase, Fiat India Automobiles Private Limited (Tata-Fiat Jv), and it was spearheaded by Nisha Shukla, Assistant Editor, B2B Division, Worldwide Media Pvt. Ltd.

Nisha started the discussion as she asked Gugale about the key materials emerging with respect to plastics in terms of lightweighting. Gugale chalked down how the materials used have evolved from mild steel to aluminium to alloys to plastics in the present. Within the plastic segment, low-density polymers are being used, especially low-density fillers are used. While earlier fillers were used to increase the density of polymers, now they help us to reduce the density of plastic, keeping it around 0.9. 

Further, there are material additives, composite materials where we use carbon fibres for glass, to get the same strength with reduce thickness and weight. 

Shiv proceeded to discuss potential new technologies and product lines that Indian suppliers could explore in the realm of lightweighting. He acknowledged the success of carbon fibres in Europe, particularly for companies like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Products such as roofs, rear trunk floors, B-pillars, and door structures have seen successful implementation in Europe. However, Shiv emphasised that, concerning Indian suppliers, this technology is currently expensive and not viable. The critical mass required for carbon fibre-reinforced polymers is still some distance away in India. Glass fibres too are making a good solution for products like front-end carriers, tailgate inners, front energy carriers, beams, in India. 

In terms of weight savings, plastic tailgates offer a 20 per cent reduction compared to metal, translating to approximately 3-9 kilograms per car and 10 per cent less weight than aluminium. Plastic fuel tanks demonstrate a 25-30 per cent weight reduction compared to metal and have been successfully implemented in India. Front-side fenders (LH and RH) exhibit a 2-5 kg weight saving compared to metal. B-pillars (not currently used in India) could achieve a 3-5 kg weight reduction. Rear trunk floors contribute to a 3 kg weight saving, while front-end carriers achieve a 2 kg weight reduction. These applications are viewed from the perspective of their potential implementation in India. He elaborated that these applications extend beyond conventional vehicles to include Light Commercial Vehicles (LCVs), Medium Commercial Vehicles (MCVs), and buses. The emphasis on lightweighting in these segments is driven by the evolution of Electric Vehicles (EVs) rather than other factors. Explorations into lightweighting encompass components such as front panels, the front bumper itself, and lower structures. However, these are primarily explored in thermosets rather than thermoplastics.

As Nisha geared the conversation towards challenges in inculcating lightweighting materials in vehicle production, Vilas took the opportunity to highlight obstacles and solutions, he articulated that as a buyer, his first question to suppliers is always with respect to cost saving. The next question that he asks is whether it is scalable and can meet required quantities. Further, the next is that whether it sustains and passes through the regulations and compliances, but the solution to all these questions according to him is to work together and get moving. 

Shiv also echoed that cost is indeed the real challenge. In addition to this, people also need good styling to their cars, which is also a challenge in India. Further, there is no major drive in India to encourage weight saving benefits, in Europe, we get 3 dollars per kg of weight saving, as OEMs are get saving from the local governments for C02 penalty. 

Practically, there is a need to work backwards. There needs to be a discussion with the top management of OEMs while making a business plan of metal versus plastic. Secondly, there is a need to look at rationalising our global product designs. For instance, having a product design that has been successfully tested for the European market, if this design is applied to the Indian market, the associated costs would not be sustainable. It necessitates repeated and thorough CAE analysis, along with frequent returns to the research and development phase. This poses a significant challenge, especially given the existing proven design. While the OEM desires the design and performance, the second phase of costing becomes impractical.

Additionally, it’s crucial to ensure that the design, engineering, and manufacturing costs are extensively localised. There need to be conversations with local raw material suppliers to maximise raw material localisation to minimise reliance on imports. 

However, there’s a styling challenge to address. As the glass fibre content increases, design flexibility decreases. Delivering the required mechanical performance in plastics may necessitate increasing the glass content and could limit styling capabilities. 

Complimenting this, Vilas added that the primary concern is the challenge of changing raw materials after the product’s start of production. To address this, one must involve raw material suppliers at the beginning stages of product design. By doing so, unnecessary duplication of validation costs is prevented, as both OEMs and suppliers invest significantly in validation processes. 

Discussing challenges, Gugale pointed out that even if technologies are accessible, the key question is whether we have the capability to adopt them. Effectively using these technologies necessitates a skilled workforce, which is, once again, a struggle in the context of India. Without skilled manpower, it becomes challenging because these processes demand precise controls, as even small changes in the process of raw metal will have a direct impact on the product. And today when OEMs are manufacturing such high volumes, every part, every downtime counts.

Expanding on the concept that lightweighting is often equated with lower cost, R T pointed out that while this might be possible in certain cases, it is hardly ever the norm.

On this, Shiv emphasised the importance of considering more than just the component cost and place focus on the net enterprise value and the net purchase value. This broader perspective encompasses aspects such as serviceability, car performance, productivity, and rejection rates, treating it as a comprehensive measure of the net enterprise value for the entire multi-purpose vehicle (MPV).

Examining the net enterprise value reveals that while the part cost may be higher by 5 per cent, considering the overall net enterprise value, which includes serviceability and performance benefits, presents a more comprehensive picture. For instance, the advantages to the OEM in terms of weight reduction, even with a 2 per cent price increase, would still result in a positive net enterprise value. 

Nisha then raised a question to Gugale regarding the potential drawbacks of placing excessive emphasis on lightweight design. She inquired whether this emphasis could affect the durability of the product or lead to an increase in the cost of repairs.

Gugale responded saying, “definitely nowhere is it compromised.” He explained that compromise is not possible because OEMs must adhere to all rules, regulations, and requirements, ensuring no compromise on vehicle maintenance costs. Furthermore, he added that by reducing the weight of vehicles through better technology, there is a likelihood of reduced downtime and fewer failures.

According to him, there shouldn’t be any penalty for end-users when using lightweight materials; in fact, it brings benefits. It’s crucial not to think that incorporating many lightweight parts compromises vehicle safety or end customer comfort. On the contrary, such choices offer more advantages, so we should not perceive it negatively.

Regarding production costs, Vilas explained that these technologies are undoubtedly more expensive than the traditional models commonly in use. Currently, high-end vehicles utilise these special materials, but for mass-volume cars like Nixon that still rely on traditional materials. 

To incorporate lightweighting for mass production, it’s crucial to assess its cost viability for OEMs. There needs to be a localising of materials in India and an establishing of an efficient supply chain to reduce costs. 

 

In the regulatory landscape of vehicle design, compliance with safety norms and regulations is important. When manufacturing vehicles in India for both domestic and export markets, adherence to safety regulations, including crashworthiness and interior safety tests like head impact tests, is mandatory. Raw material suppliers must be informed of these norms, and they need to confirm whether the materials meet the specified standards for a particular vehicle model.

 

This confirmation is not immediate; suppliers often need to conduct simulations and tests, possibly on prototypes, to gain confidence in meeting the requirements. Upon satisfactory results, the supplier communicates their ability to meet the specified model’s requirements. 

When asked about the application of lightweighting in both Electric Vehicles (EVs) and Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, Shiv expressed that lightweighting is a universally advantageous concept for both. 

He mentioned that the charging time and battery cost are being optimised due to the lighter vehicle, which overall has a significant impact on EVs. The cost of the battery represents one of the largest elements in an EV, surpassing other considerations. This is a well-known aspect in the realm of EVs. The second crucial factor is the compliance with CO2 emission regulations.

The CO2 regulations indicate that a lighter car results in lower fuel consumption and consequently, fewer CO2 emissions per kilometre. It’s quantified that roughly a 10 kg weight reduction leads to a one-gram CO2 reduction per kilometre. The challenge lies in the fact that every 10 kg reduction yields only one gram, making the calculations challenging.

Achieving a significant reduction in CO2 emissions depends on reaching a critical mass of around 30 to 35 kg with an integrated set of suppliers. India as a country is slightly behind in meeting emission reduction targets. For comparison, China aims for a 60 to 65 per cent reduction, while the US targets a 26 to 28 per cent reduction by the year 2025, he added.

As the segment headed to its conclusion, the panel discussed over the potential future of lightweighting in India.

Gugale envisions a future where the collective desire for a beautiful climate and a healthy lifestyle is driving significant expectations in the automotive industry. The demand is for vehicles with zero emissions, maximum mileage, zero maintenance, and zero downtime. This places considerable pressure on the industry, and Gugale is committed to providing the necessary raw materials, technology, and machinery to support OEMs in meeting these demands.

He stressed that the demand is immense and extends beyond the automotive sector to practically every aspect of life, from domestic appliances to packaging. Products are becoming lighter to reduce raw material consumption, aligning with the principles of sustainability and reuse. Gugale believes there are no limitations to this trend, and the future looks bright with ongoing advancements in technology and innovation.

Shiv emphasised the need for collaboration, urging tleadership teams across the country, along with OEMs, to unite. While discussions on carbon fibre and advanced alloys are happening with various suppliers, Shiv highlighted a challenge—individual suppliers lack a critical mass, hindering progress. He proposed the establishment of forums or platforms where these fragmented initiatives can converge. The solutions and materials exist, but the cost factor, influenced by demand and supply dynamics in India, remains a hurdle.

 

Whether it’s aluminium alloys or carbon fibres, Shiv stressed the urgency for all stakeholders to come together as a unified team, working collaboratively on lightweighting. He sees it as a win-win situation not just for the present but for the future generations.

 

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