AI & AM— Revolutionizing Automotive Lightweighting

Authored by Avi Reichental –

AI-driven generative design, advances in additive manufacturing are creating a perfect storm for automotive lightweighting.

In 300-plus years of industrialization, there have been only a few instances where a trifecta of deep social change, rapid technological advancement and effective public policy converged to create a perfect storm that catalyzed exponential change.

For example, the period following the War of Currents in the late 19th century was a springboard for the electrification revolution. Then, growing social demand for electric power converged with advances in technology for safer transmission of AC (and the end of Thomas Edison’s DC power dreams) and was fueled by increasing government support and industry oversight. The end result of this period continues to shape our world today in a very tangible way.

Fast-forward to today, and I believe we are in the midst of just such a perfect storm regarding lightweighting in the automotive industry. The outcome of the revolution, which is already quietly underway, will be nothing less than a fundamental change in the way people and goods move from one place to another in the future.

Conventional trailing arm on the left and optimized one on the right weighting 48 percent less. (Photo courtesy of ParaMatters)

To understand this revolution, and our respective roles in it, it’s crucial to grasp the external factors driving lightweighting in the automotive industry—namely, the advanced AI and additive manufacturing (AM) technology behind the exponential advances we’re currently experiencing and how these changes will come to fruition in the future.

The outcome of the revolution will be nothing less than a fundamental change in the way people and goods move from one place to another in the future.

Simply put, automotive industry products move people or things from point A to point B. And the idea is to do so while expending minimum energy, at minimum expense, with maximum efficiency, while guaranteeing safety and comfort. Given that there’s an obvious correlation between energy expenditure and the weight of the object being moved, our impetus to lightweight seems clear: less weight equals less fuel and more profitability. So, everyone should have been doing this long ago, right?

Yet there’s a bit more to the equation than meets the eye. Because lightweighting demand and lightweighting acceptance aren’t always fully in line. Consider the Chevrolet Corvette, which has sported a lightweighted (initially fiberglass, later plastic/carbon fiber) body since the early 1950s. The Corvette’s performance and popularity is, of course, undeniable.

Yet the use of lightweighted car bodies still remains a high-end feature on this and other unarguably high-end vehicles—owing to the cost of materials and production. Anecdotally, we can’t forget the ill-fated Sussita from my own native Israel, whose lightweighted fiberglass body was better received by the camels who reportedly liked its taste than by performance-minded consumers.

In any case, straightforward vehicle-weight considerations are not the sole driving factor in lightweighting today. What’s really powering the lightweighting trend is overall manufacturing and operational efficiency, of which vehicle weight is but one (albeit key) factor.

We live in the era of global warming and with it a growing public and regulatory awareness of humanity’s role in it. Governments around the world are tightening the screws on carmakers with stricter emissions and fuel-efficiency standards. And private and commercial buyers are starting to take vehicle efficiency into account.

But manufacturers are looking not only at the vehicles they produce, but at the production process itself. For example, a vehicle may be made X-percent lighter, resulting in direct fuel savings of $Y. Yet the cost of production of this vehicle could easily be higher by a factor of Z, not to mention the environmental impact of producing and shipping lightweighted parts. And all this could easily make lightweighting economically unviable.

Thus, demand for lightweighted vehicles is coming from the grassroots, so to speak. And it’s coming from manufacturers who look (as any business would) at the bottom line. And it’s coming from governments and regulators. Yet the true driver of lightweighting today—the factor that’s making it economically and ecologically viable to lightweight on a massive scale—is the technological revolution that enables the design and at-scale production of lightweighted parts.

Nothing has affected lightweighting in the past half-century more than AI-driven generative design.

Why? Lightweighting has traditionally been accomplished either through material substitution or reduction—achieving the same function with the same amount of a lighter material or less material. The problem is lightweighting parts via material substitution (recall the Corvette example above) has gone just about as far as it can go. There is a physical limit—and certainly an economic limit—to the viability of materials substitution, and we’ve reached the cost-benefit breaking point.

That’s why the automotive industry has turned to material reduction for lightweighting. And material reduction rests squarely at the sweet spot between additive manufacturing and AI-driven generative design.

Generative design is perhaps the most significant development in the history of industrial design. Simply put, generative design is software technology that brings new automation to computer-aided design (CAD) by using artificial intelligence to rapidly explore nearly infinite design options for any given product.

We can’t forget the ill-fated Sussita, whose lightweighted fiberglass body was better received by the camels who reportedly liked its taste than by performance-minded consumers.

Generative design is so disruptive because it fundamentally changes the design process. Traditionally, design was deterministic: For a given design goal, one idea at a time was explored thoroughly then submitted for engineering review. With generative design, the product designer simply provides the design goals—shape, purpose and other required engineering features. The software uses a combination of intelligent algorithms and brute-force calculation to create and compare hundreds of thousands of design alternatives.

Generative design transforms CAD from an electronic drawing board to a co-designer. It provides novel solutions that can shatter existing design paradigms and has made the production of organically inspired structures a reality. Some of the optimized and lightweight geometries produced by generative design mimic very efficient organic structures like human and animal bones—effectively leveraging patents that nature evolved over the course of millions of years.

Clearly, designs that remain unrealized are disruptive only in theory. Thankfully, the final element of our perfect lightweighting storm is AM. Today, the automotive industry has the capability, tools and experience to produce the complex and lightweight geometries created by generative design— cost-effectively, rapidly and at scale.

Much has been written about the history and capabilities of AM and 3-D printing. In the automotive industry, 3-D printing long ago became the standard for prototyping. In fact, Ford bought one of the world’s first 3-D printers all the way back in 1988 and today has some 90 machines worldwide, making parts and tools.

AM technology has already made the move from rapid prototyping labs and design offices onto the manufacturing floor. 3-D-printed production parts are already integrated into assembly-line manufactured vehicles like the Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, BMW i8 Roadster, Lamborghini Urus and Bugatti Chiron. The BMW Group recently announced that it has produced a million parts by AM— 200,000 components last year alone, capping a 42-percent increase over the previous year.

New high-strength polymers and thermal plastics (the polyamide family of nylon, PA6 for under-hood components, PA 11 and 12, etc.) and the adoption of direct metal printing (alloys that can replace vehicle castings) are ensuring the continued penetration of AM into production environments. Some, like myself, already envision an era of custom-designed and printed vehicles, with an end of mega-factories and the advent of Mom-and-Pop corner car-printing shops.

The ability to produce millions of the same parts or millions of one-of-a-kind parts offers a degree of freedom automotive manufacturing has yet to experience. AM turns conventional manufacturing wisdom on its head and opens new doors of freedom, flexibility, utility and speed.

Once upon a time, the only way to get to scale was to mass-produce. Now, you can basically teleport parts around the world—sending digital files to local 3-D printers. Complex supply chains become simplified. There are no more constraints of function versus design, no more limits imposed by traditional machining or molding.

So where does lightweighting come in?

“… highly complex part geometry, such as lattices and trabecular structures, cannot be manufactured by any traditional formative or subtractive means,” said my colleague Davide Sher, a senior analyst for Europe at SmarTech Markets Publishing, in a recent interview.

Some already envision an era of custom-designed and printed vehicles, with an end of mega-factories and the advent of Mom-and-Pop corner car-printing shops.

This is the crux of the lightweighting revolution being facilitated by AI and AM: The components being created by generative design can only be practically manufactured using additive techniques.

Thus, the next generation of lightweighting is tied intrinsically to AM. And this is where things are getting interesting. Because now, generative designs can be optimized for AM. This means that complex geometry is no longer a limitation, but rather an enabler. It means that tooling is no longer a must and that more parts can be combined into homogenous units at the design stage, without assembly— lowering part count and (surprise, surprise) weight.

When I started working in 3-D printing in 2003, we didn’t have the infinite computing power of the cloud. We certainly didn’t have ubiquitous connectivity or chip sensors, and AI was a subject one could study at MIT, but did not yet have any practical applications. Even robotics was largely out of reach—both from a cost and performance perspective. The idea of generative design wasn’t even on the drawing board. There was talk of creating the “digital thread” of manufacturing, but the handshake between the various workflows was not yet smooth enough to bring the process into the mainstream.

Yet even in 2003, Ford, BMW and Chrysler were all very active in AM. These carmakers were early adopters in using AM for design and prototyping. They realized that this technology was a game changer, yet material performance, computing power and scalability were holding them back.

Today, processes are more cost effective, more scalable, and development cycles are shorter. Today, 3-D-printed parts are being produced on a mass scale, and the foundation of traditional manufacturing is being rocked.

What’s the next step for lightweighting using AM and AI-driven generative design? Under-the-hood, high-temperature and other mission-critical components will soon be produced via AM. It can also be used to develop parts of the undercarriage such as brakes and trailer arms.

With the advent of mass-market autonomous vehicles, the whole concept of “vehicle” will be changing. If there’s no steering wheel, the utility of surfaces within the vehicle interior can shift toward productivity, entertainment and utility. Dashboard inserts, cup holders, storage components and work surfaces within driverless cars—all can be rethought, redesigned, lightweighted and produced with AM.

Today, 3-D-printed parts are being produced on a mass scale, and the foundation of traditional manufacturing is being rocked.

It’s been only 15 years since I began my incredible journey into the world of advanced manufacturing, AI and lightweighting, and so many of the core challenges have been resolved. Automotive lightweighting today is in many ways limited less by technology than by convention and imagination. The future of mobility is smarter, more efficient, cost-effective and of course—lighter!


Authored by Avi Reichental, Vice-Chairman Techniplas, Chief Executive Officer Techniplas Digital