Gas prices seem to be coming back down, but that perception is partially an artifact of the general theory of fuel relativity. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that fuel prices will continue to fluctuate wildly and that current prices still range north of $3.00 a gallon in the US — a level that once was considered to be on the far end of the skyrocket but today feels relatively down to earth.
The auto industry knows, however, that consumers want much more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, and the entire industry has restructured to provide them. While SUVs still drive a significant portion of the auto-buying population, smaller, lighter American cars — many of them hybrids — have never been so numerous in their selections and their approaches to fuel savings.
Certainly advancements in powertrains (conventional, hybrid and electric) have improved the fuel consumptions of the fleet, but opportunities exist to further reduce the mass of the components used in most passenger vehicles. Beyond developing smaller vehicles, product designs driven by structural optimization technology are yet to become policy—and if the projected impending increases in commodity prices also materialize, weight reduction will be not just be desired by consumers but imperative for maintaining profitability in the auto industry.
Optimization uses sophisticated simulation software that reveals ways to design components in a manner that uses less material without sacrificing performance. Through simulation, vehicle designers and engineers can discover methods to lighten the vehicle by using a different material, changing a component’s shape or putting holes in the component where structural support is not needed. Optimization can be carried out for instrument and door panels, seats, brackets, cross-car beams, engine cradles and just about any other part of a vehicle as well as the entire body-in-white.
Multiplied over the thousands of components in millions of cars and trucks, the cost and weight savings can be considerable. Lighter vehicles, of course, get better mileage and burn less fuel than their conventional counterparts. That means even traditional vehicles that fill up with gasoline can contribute to reducing impacts on the environment if their design is weight-optimized.
The optimization “diet” has removed thousands of kilograms of material from the cars we drive. To reduce weight further, however, optimization needs to be applied early and often—during the concept phase and then consistently throughout the development program.
It is interesting to look at the establishment of “optimization centers” at major aerospace companies and the dramatic and positive effect they have had on the delivery of fuel-efficient commercial aircraft. An optimization center serves as a focused “skill center of excellence” where a team of optimization experts collaborates within an organization to apply technology for the development of lightweight, performance-optimized designs for a wide range of components and structures. The first successes for optimization in aircraft, as with automobiles, were demonstrated at the component level before optimization centers embarked on improving system-level mass. Ultimately, the application of optimization has delivered a change in the product-development process. Structural optimization technology has been embraced as a key enabler, not only at original equipment manufacturers, but also throughout the supply chain. Forward-looking automotive companies now are establishing optimization centers and exploring their potential to move from traditional “design, then validate” iterations to a design process truly driven by computer-aided engineering and the intelligent simulation that CAE can provide.
In the past, optimization often was introduced after a weight or structural problem had been identified in physical tests, late in the program. As a result, optimization technology was applied in an unsystematic fashion, limiting the benefits that it could offer. Delaying the use of optimization until late in the design cycle to reduce weight, save material or improve performance is a costly way to use technology and to build cars. Optimization centers show organizations how to execute optimization technology strategically. Engineers at these centers integrate closely with the product development team to determine the areas where optimization can bring the most benefit, ensuring that the best optimization methods and technology are performed at the right stage in the development program to achieve maximum benefit.
So if structural optimization is a diet of sorts, perhaps we should view the optimization center as a fat farm. After all, chances are slim that fuel prices will ever return to being just a small part of the average commuter’s personal budget—and fat chance that we’ll slash environmental emissions without continuing to redesign our vehicles with optimization in mind from the start.
Royston Jones is a 14-year veteran of Altair, a leading industry expert in leveraging intelligent software technology and optimization methods to maximize product performance and minimize weight. He finds passion in engineering simulation and increasing its impact on the design process to create highly engineered, green products. For more information, visit www.altairenlighten.com.