Originally published on fastradius.com on August 17, 2020
One of the biggest challenges facing the automotive manufacturing industry is the constant push for technologies that enable engineers to produce parts that are lighter in weight, higher in strength, and lower in cost. This has led many manufacturers to search for innovative new materials and methods that allow them to more effectively meet changing consumer and industry demands.
Take the demand for electric vehicles, for instance. Right now, market demand outpaces the automotive industry’s ability to provide electric vehicles at an accessible price point for consumers, in part because battery manufacturers are beginning to reach the limits of what’s possible with current technologies.
However, new designs in powertrain technology — the system that converts battery energy into AC power for the motor — include Silicon Carbide (SiC) semiconductor technologies, which increase the efficiency of batteries while making them more cost effective to manufacture. While only one example, developments in powertrain technology are evidence of a larger movement happening across the automotive manufacturing sector — one defined by an increased focus on cost and fuel efficiency, sustainability, and personalization. Here are some of the top current automotive industry trends.
1. Lightweight, fuel-efficient materials
Many automotive components have traditionally been manufactured from iron and steel alloys, both of which are strong but heavy materials. However, developments in manufacturing technologies have enabled automotive companies to replace these metal components with a new set of materials — including aluminum, magnesium, high-performance plastics, carbon fiber and other composites, and more — that are significantly lighter and offer comparable strength and stiffness. This allows manufacturers to meet consumer demands and increasingly stringent federal fuel economy standards.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), incorporating innovative, lightweight materials into automotive design can reduce the weight of the chassis by as much as 50%, and each 10% reduction in weight can increase fuel efficiency by up to 8% — the benefits of which manufacturers have demonstrated. When Ford introduced the all-aluminum F-150 pick-up in 2015, the vehicle proved to be significantly lighter than steel counterparts on the market, giving the truck best-in-class fuel economy.
Lightweight materials become especially important as the automotive sector shifts toward increased electrification, as they allow cars to carry more advanced safety, electronics, and emissions systems without increasing the vehicle’s mass. According to the DOE, consumers could save 5 billion gallons of fuel or more per year by 2030 if even 25% of light-duty vehicles are made with lightweight components and high-efficiency engines. Increasing fuel efficiency also extends the range of electric vehicles.
Carbon fiber is one material that’s strength and stiffness are attractive to manufacturers. This is because it enables engineers to create parts with significantly lower mass but equivalent performance characteristics to components made from lightweight metals and other composite materials.
However, because the production of carbon fiber requires extremely precise manufacturing methods, it is a labor-intensive and expensive material. While much of the current demand for carbon fiber comes from the aerospace and energy sectors, more carbon fiber is likely to be incorporated into automotive designs, especially as manufacturing processes become more advanced and cost effective.
2. Automation and self-driving cars
Automation is another key automotive manufacturing trend. By leveraging the power and efficiency of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology, automotive companies are improving both the safety and efficiency of their vehicles.
IoT technologies in particular are poised to transform the automotive sector. Driverless cars may have once seemed an impossibility, but manufacturers today are creating smart cars that update their driving algorithms based on real-time data captured by other autonomous cars.
This data is uploaded to a cloud system, analyzed, and redistributed to improve the automated functions of the entire fleet of vehicles. This also enables cars to use complex systems of high-powered cameras, lasers, and remote sensors to provide adaptive cruise control or detect lane departures, thereby improving passenger safety.
3. Electric vehicles
While electric vehicles have previously been limited by their range and expensive production costs, cutting-edge lithium ion cathode batteries have become more powerful and more economical to produce in recent years. In fact, electric vehicles may be less expensive to manufacture than their gas-powered counterparts. Battery prices decreased by 80% between 2010 and 2019, and are anticipated to drop by an additional 50% in coming years.
Tesla is one of the leading names in electric automotive manufacturing, in part because of the company’s continued commitment to pushing the boundaries of what battery technologies can do. The desire for durable, longer-range batteries has led the company to shift from lithium ion batteries to ones made with lithium-iron phosphate. The shift in chemistry makes the batteries cheaper to produce, extends driving ranges between charges to more than 400 miles, and can increase the battery life cycle to 1 million miles. Not only that, iron phosphate batteries are safer and can be retired into secondary or tertiary life cycles as energy storage.
Another key player at the intersection of the autonomous and electric vehicle sectors is Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company that recently partnered with Volvo to produce a fleet of ridesharing cars that are both driverless and electric. These cars will have Level 4 autonomy, meaning they will be able to pilot themselves in the majority of situations without user input (per the Society of Automotive Engineers’ standardized rating system, Level 0 indicates no autonomy and Level 5 indicates full autonomy.) These factors all contribute to make the automotive manufacturing industry more sustainable, by shifting power sources from fossil fuels to increasingly efficient electric batteries.
4. Using additive manufacturing to make the unmakeable with 3D printing
While additive manufacturing methods are helping many automotive companies to produce better-performing cars more efficiently, the full potential of the technology is still largely untapped. 3D printing is used widely for rapid prototyping, but developments in additive technologies now allow manufacturers to 3D print production tooling and end-use parts.
Additive technology can help streamline design and production, as well. For example, many components (such as air intake ducts) that previously had to be molded separately and then welded together can now be produced additively in a one-step process. Additive technologies can be also used to create unique geometries that save significantly more space inside dashboards and paneling than components produced via traditional methods.
Ford was one of the first automotive manufacturers to tap into the transformative power of additive technology. In designing the 2020 Shelby GT500, the company used additive manufacturing processes to test more than 10 different designs for a specific part component simultaneously. This allowed Ford to create what’s been called the “most aerodynamically advanced Mustang to date.”
The flexibility of on-demand additive manufacturing also helps mitigate potential automotive industry supply chain challenges — Porsche, for instance, now produces rare or low-volume components for its legacy car models using 3D printing. The versatility of the technology means that it’s highly likely that more and more automotive components are going to be produced through innovative methods than ever before.
5. Mass customization
Another emerging automotive industry trend is mass customization, which is reflective of a larger global trend toward personalization. Today, as many as two out of three people say it’s an important factor when choosing a new vehicle.
Additive technologies not only enable specialty car manufacturers to produce unique cars at extremely low volumes more effectively, but they also allow non-luxury manufacturers to offer cost-effective customization options for their vehicles.
Mini and Ferrari are two companies that now allow buyers to customize everything from the color of the car’s exterior paneling to granular details like LED trim lighting and individualized dashboards. Manufacturers can leverage the benefits of on-demand manufacturing to efficiently and economically meet the challenges raised by personalization. Rather than producing parts en masse, as traditional manufacturing models support, on-demand manufacturing precisely adapts production to demand through operational agility.
Manufacturing a more autonomous and sustainable future
Ultimately these trends are reflective of a widespread consumer interest in products that are high quality, efficient, sustainable, and tailored to their specific needs. The automotive manufacturers best-positioned to succeed in the coming years are those who are able to leverage new technological innovations to more efficiently and effectively meet the demands of their customers. Smart technologies, automation, electrification, and customization are all trends that will continue to shape how the automotive industry evolves.
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