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Examining Alternatives

 When Marcel van Schaik registered for the 21st Annual Automotive Aluminum Design & Fabrication Seminar this past fall, the person at the registration desk asked him, he recalls with some amusement, “And what should we put down as your title?

 When Marcel van Schaik registered for the 21st Annual Automotive Aluminum Design & Fabrication Seminar this past fall, the person at the registration desk asked him, he recalls with some amusement, “And what should we put down as your title? Spy?”

Van Schaik is the manager, Advanced Materials Technology, with the American Iron and Steel Institute’s Automotive Applications staff in Southfield, Michigan. And so far as he is concerned, one of his key tasks within the organization is to bring in first-hand information about what’s going on in the areas that could affect the use of automotive steel—sheet, in particular—and if this means attending conferences being put on by competitive organizations, then if he can get in, he’s there.

The materials that he is paying the greatest attention to are, in addition to aluminum, magnesium, plastics/composites, and even titanium.

Van Schaik’s background prior to his present position, which he gained in 1999, provides him with a useful basis of understanding various aspects of materials applications. In 1986, after obtaining a degree in Automotive Engineering from the Institute of Automotive Engineering in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands, he started his auto industry career as a project manager at Kick Design, a Netherlands-based conceptual design and engineering firm. Then in 1990 he became a project manager at Koninklijke Hoogovens, a Dutch steel and aluminum producer. And yes, while there, he did work on aluminum applications. How did he end up on this side of the Atlantic? He represented Hoogovens at meetings in Southfield for the UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB) Consortium, which now includes 35 steel companies. One thing led to another which led to a position.

Intensely Looking at Aluminum. One of van Schaik’s recent studies looked at one of the more interesting recent applications of aluminum in the auto industry, the Audi A2. Van Schaik acknowledges that Audi has managed to establish what he describes as a “good marketing tool” with the aluminum-intensive A8—and goes on to note that the A8 is a low-volume (~15K) luxury car (retailing in North America in the vicinity of $62,000 to $71,000). Yes, it has the innovative Space Frame, which combines extrusions and castings; yes, there are aluminum body panels. But the A8 is a low-volume vehicle—by design.

Audi A2
Although the aluminum-intensive Audi A2 is arguably a tour de force with regard to using the nonferrous material for body and chassis applications, a study from the AISI indicates that making it that way costs twice as much as it would had it been made with steel.

With the A2, which went into production in November, 1999, it is an entirely different approach, not from the standpoint of materials use—for it is, too, an aluminum-intensive vehicle—but from that of volume: apparently Audi’s plans call for the production of as many as 60,000 units per year from its plant in Neckarsulm, Germany (where the A8 is also produced). The A2 is not a car for the few but for the—comparative—many: the price point for the A2, which is presently available only in Europe, is in the $16,000 to $17,000 U.S. price range. The affordability for the consumer is there. But what about for the producer?

According to van Schaik, the A2 features 22 aluminum body shell extrusions (all of which are machined and punched); 18 body shell castings (all vacuum die cast); and 198 stampings (including hinges and brackets).

He admits that compared to the A8, the technical prowess exhibited by engineers from Audi and participating supplier companies is “tremendous.” He points out, for example, the fact that they developed a much simpler B-pillar configuration and have added laser welding to complement the MIG welding that is performed in the body shop, thereby increasing the level of automation used in production.

“But there are still cost implications,” van Schaik says, indicating that if all aspects of cost are taken into account, producing the car in aluminum costs twice as much as it would if it was produced in steel. Given the small margins that exist for small cars in general, one has to wonder about the effect of this doubling on Audi’s ROI.

What About Timing? He understands that there are people within Audi as well as at other auto companies that are interested in aluminum from the standpoint of the reduction of mass that the material offers vis-à-vis steel (this largely being driven by fuel consumption reduction regulations), but one of his objectives is to help people within the industry understand some of the implications that the material has when it comes to process changes, which can have an effect on program timing. He says, for example, that due to the different modulus and elongation properties of aluminum, die design/tryout take more than 50% of the time that people have been used to with steel. He acknowledges that this will undoubtedly change with learning, but he argues that it could be a costly lesson to learn.

Although aluminum is evidently a material that is making inroads—at least from the standpoint of visibility through novelty—van Schaik says that when he looks five to 10 years out, he sees plastics/composites, perhaps, playing a bigger role in body panel applications, especially in lower volume applications. This could be particularly competitive if there are further developments in the means to produce less expensive tooling (e.g., the Ford-developed Sprayform Tooling process). . .but he goes on to point out (of course) that there can be some innovative uses of steel, such as prepainted material (often used in the appliance industry today), which would reduce an advantage of plastic.

Magnesium? Yes, he says that people are looking at the possibility of producing magnesium sheet. Van Schaik points out, however, that when they analyzed the light-weight material when he was at Hoogovens, they determined that it was too costly to produce, based largely on a high reject rate from the mill (and given heightened quality requirements in today’s body shops, consistent material specs are an absolute must-have). But van Schaik and his colleagues aren’t taking anything for granted when it comes to alternative materials. 

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