At Ford of Europe’s Aachen, Germany, Advanced Technology Center, a heavyweight subject is lightweight materials for future vehicles. There, Prof. Dr. Pim van der Jagt, Director of Research and Advanced Engineering, has a wish list upon which he and some 300-plus engineers and materials specialists are concentrating.
This is his list, much of which seems likely to be granted:
• New types of steel that are up to three times stronger than current steels and improve manufacturing feasibility because they can be formed into parts more easily.
• Polymeric plastic strengthening foams that are sufficiently strong to stabilize bodywork in an accident but light enough to float on water. These foams are being used to reinforce sections of the steel body, such as the B-pillars.
• Surface coatings that reduce engine friction and remain intact even under the most adverse conditions.
• Alternative (copper-based) wire harness technologies that will enable significant weight reductions.
• Nanotechnology to model material properties and performance at the nanoscale, which will allow the company to develop better materials more quickly and with lower research and development costs.
• Nano-filler materials in metal and plastic composites to reduce their weight while increasing their strength.
“We are already using advanced high-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium, natural fibers, and nano-based materials—an example of which is the recent introduction of a new lightweight injection-molded plastic technology, called MuCell, on the all-new Escape/Kuga,” he said. More than 55% of the bodyshell of the current Focus uses high-strength steel and some 26% of its structure is formed from ultrahigh-strength boron steels.
But now Jagt and his teams are looking a decade or two ahead, at what will be needed and what will be feasible for the vehicles of the 2020s and 2030s.
Visions of fuel cells
Also based in Aachen, Andreas Schamel, Director of Global Powertrain, Research, and Advanced Engineering, is looking ahead as well. Both Schamel and Jagt are establishing the foundations on which a raft of vehicle technologies will rest.
“We will offer electrified vehicles based on global platforms, not specially created cars, so customers can choose the powertrain they want in Ford’s core vehicles. We will start delivering the Ford Focus Electric later this year followed by the C-Max Energi in 2014 and the Mondeo HEV after that,” Schamel said.
But further out is the lure of the fuel cell solution. In the late 1990s, very senior OEM executives were talking generally optimistically to this AEI Editor of fuel-cell-powered cars’ potential, with arrivals on the market in meaningful numbers likely for end-user lease or purchase as early as 2003 (the optimists) or as late as 2011 (the shrewdly cautious). Both estimates have proven inaccurate.
However, the pursuit of the technology for series production continues. Said Schamel: “Ford Motor Co., Daimler AG, and Nissan Motor Co. have signed an agreement for the joint development of common fuel cell systems to speed up the availability of zero emission technology. This collaboration builds on more than 60 years’ cumulative experience and will help define global specifications and component standards.
“The strategy to maximize design and manufacturing commonality, leverage volume, and derive efficiencies through economies of scale will help the project launch of the world’s first affordable mass-market fuel cell electric vehicle as early as 2017.”
While Ford has downsized its gasoline engines very convincingly—notably with the three-cylinder EcoBoost, which is smaller and lighter weight but delivers more power and better fuel economy—downsizing diesels is another matter as they do not achieve the gains obtainable with smaller turbocharged gasoline units because they already run unthrottled.
“Part of the efficiency gain from downsizing a gasoline engine comes from allowing the smaller engine to run with the throttle more open—so this gain does not benefit the diesel,” said Schamel. “Also, because diesel engines have a lower rev limit, it is hard to get a competitive power level from a very small diesel engine, whereas a higher revving gasoline engine, even a very small capacity unit, can still give the power that the product needs and the market expects. Compare the 1.0-L EcoBoost at 125 PS (92 kW) at 6000 rpm vs. the 1.6-L DV6 diesel at 115 PS (85 kW) at circa 4000 rpm.”
He states that at present there is a “sensible cut-off” point at around 1.3-L diesel displacement, a size which is offered in the Ka. Any smaller and the complexity and cost are excessive in relation to the relatively low distances such vehicles are driven. “But for higher mileage drivers, diesel will always offer a fuel-economy benefit beyond the vehicle and fuel price. Taxation will incentivize diesel or gasoline as suits legislators,” Schamel said.
Promise of rapid prototyping
Controlling costs is always central to an OEM’s product planning, and the R&D element of that is very significant to meet rising market and legislative pressures. But Jagt explains that the company’s “One Ford” global product development system is “fully operationalized,” using global platforms to deliver customer-focused programs rapidly and efficiently across all markets.
“Through our ‘hub and satellite’ approach, one lead product development engineering center (the hub) is assigned for each global vehicle line, thereby ensuring global scale and efficiency through common designs, parts, suppliers, and manufacturing processes,” Jagt said. “The hubs are supported by regional engineering centers (satellites), which also help deliver products tuned to local market customer preferences while maintaining global design DNA and scale benefits.”
The use of rapid prototyping, with Ford engineers able to digitally create “workable” parts at their desks, increases global efficiency and reduces development time—and subsequently time to market, so saving cost.
Jagt underlines that Ford is now a leader in 3-D printing, investing in one of the newest innovations: “3-D in sand.” He explained: “It allows the creation of a series of testable pieces with slight variations to develop the absolute best vehicle for mass production. Looking ahead, there could be the potential for customers to get access to useable replacement parts by having them printed by a rapid prototyping manufacturing machine.”
And looking further ahead, what new technologies would Ford’s Aachen R&D leaders like to see incorporated? Said Jagt: “Fuel economy, safety, quality, and other traditional vehicle attributes will no longer be the differentiators. Connectivity and other ‘smart’ vehicle features will take over as drivers come to expect to stay online while at the wheel. The challenge is to enable connectivity to aid the driver (with increased personal/traffic/topographical information) rather than distract him or her.”