Lightweighting heavy trucks

  • 07-Aug-2009 10:41 EDT
The colored areas illustrate possible sections that can be thickness-minimized for reduced weight. In computer simulations, the thicknesses of the sheet-metal sections are minimized while keeping other performance characteristics, such as crash safety, driver environment, and durability unchanged.

Heavy trucks that weigh less but still carry the same payload—that’s the future according to Volvo Group engineers, who are working hard to make it happen. The obvious benefit of such lighter vehicles—powered by correspondingly smaller engines—would be a reduction in fuel consumption, and thus CO2 emissions.

Lightweight technology has mainly been the domain of Volvo Aero for its aircraft engine components. Its first composite part for a jet engine, delivered in 2008, was a fan structure with a diameter of 2 m (6.6 ft) and with 44 fan guide vanes. The component was 30% lighter than the titanium equivalent.

Engineers at AB Volvo’s research company, Volvo Technology, believe using similar technology can reduce the weight of the cab and chassis in heavy trucks by at least 20% within 10 years.

“We are creating the super-light vehicle in a computer environment that simulates how hundreds of thousands of small design alterations can reduce the vehicle’s total weight without affecting other key characteristics in the vehicle, such as crashworthiness or the ability to carry loads,” said Carl Fredrik Hartung, Project Manager at Volvo Technology.

One of the challenges is that a super-light vehicle inevitably necessitates the use of more expensive materials of higher strength.

“First, we look at the sheet-metal thickness,” Hartung explained. “We try to reduce the metal thickness as much as possible; when we cannot reduce that anymore, we try to look at different alternative materials such as aluminum or carbon fiber.”

For example, Volvo Aero applies a technology involving so-called dry reinforcements. Carbon-fiber mats are packed together in a specific direction to customize the desired degrees of strength and stiffness. Liquid plastic is injected and the entire structure is hardened at a high temperature.

Though performance requirements are far more rigorous in an aircraft than in a truck or bus, Volvo engineers believe the ability and technology to produce lightweight components translates well to on-road vehicles. Cross-industry technology sharing is expected to benefit several areas, according to the company, including engine components, wheel suspensions, transmissions, and structural members.

To help keep costs down using such materials, production volumes must be “sufficiently large.”

“It is important to conduct thorough computer simulations and standardize the manufacturing process so that it will be profitable to manufacture lighter vehicles for commercial use,” said Hartung. “We have come a long way, but a great deal of work remains before the first super-light vehicles hit the road.”

Rather than waiting a decade or so before introducing lightweight technology, it will be a continuous process, he said: “For every year and every model, we’ll build lighter trucks.”

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