With gas prices now way past the $3.50 a gallon price that saw a change in consumer habits a couple of years or so ago, perhaps smaller cars will become a more permanent fixture on the North American automotive landscape. Although interestingly last year the recovery in U.S. auto sales was significantly driven by people buying the trucks and larger SUVs that they turned away from in 2008.
Certainly advancements in powertrains (conventional, hybrid and electric) have improved the fuel consumption of the fleet, but opportunities exist to reduce the mass of the components used in most passenger vehicles. In addition to developing smaller vehicles, product designs driven by structural optimization technology are yet to become commonplace. If the projected increase in commodity prices also materializes this year, weight reduction will not just be desired by consumers, but imperative for maintaining profitability in our industry.
The use of structural optimization technology has been applied to automotive brackets, cross car beams, engine cradles and a variety of other parts in the automotive industry for many years now. This type of incremental diet for vehicle weight reduction 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 program timing and across vehicle systems.
It is interesting to look at the establishment of “Optimization Centers” at major aerospace companies and the dramatic and positive effect this has had on the delivery of fuel efficient commercial aircraft. The first successes, as in auto, were demonstrated at the component level before embarking 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 the OEMs, but throughout the supply chain. Forward-looking automotive companies are now establishing optimization centers and exploring the potential to move from traditional “design then validate” iterations, to a true CAE driven design process.
So if structural optimization is diet of sorts, maybe an Optimization Center is vehicular fat farm!
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