Capturing Aluminum’s Potential with Systems Engineering
Aluminum — long the material of choice for aerospace, European automotive design and other industries — is being rapidly embraced by North American automotive designers for its high strength-to-weight ratio, light weight and corrosion resistance.
However, aluminum exhibits different characteristics than steel that require a Systems Engineering approach to unlock maximum value. Systems Engineering provides an open exchange of ideas directed at a common goal: Developing the aluminum alloy best capable of achieving functional and regulatory-related design goals while optimizing manufacturing efficiencies to meet cost and timeline requirements.
The resulting refinements and improvements are catalyzing the development of next-generation aluminum alloys with functionality and costs that are improving the profitability of automakers worldwide.
HOW SYSTEMS ENGINEERING WORKS
In a traditional engineering scenario, material innovations are developed using a waterfall approach, in which various engineering functions are tackled in a linear fashion. If an obstacle occurs during the piloting phase, multiple steps must be retraced to find and correct the underlying problem, adding time and cost to the development process.
Systems Engineering takes a life-cycle view of material development. It integrates R&D, production and management engineers into a single team responsible for designing and managing customer-driven solutions. This cross-disciplinary team of engineers collaborates from the outset, reducing time to market and improving responsiveness to customer objectives.
In Systems Engineering, material development engineers work closely with the internal automotive design team to clearly define each functional element of design. For example, the automobile may require the sharp lines characteristic of steel-based profiles, significant reductions in overall weight, a high level of impact resistance and/or optimum respectability.
Simultaneously, the material partner’s production engineer provides input on the production variables relevant to achieving the designer’s goals. By weighing the advantages and disadvantages of various die designs, stamping processes or dimensional controls, an experienced production engineer can help optimize the manufacturing process for operational efficiency and performance.
In a typical automotive scenario, more than 300 fixed and variable costs are evaluated during the design, development and manufacturing process. Knowledgeable cost analysts on a Systems Engineering team use industry-recognized models to evaluate the impact of every conceivable option on total life-cycle cost. For example, a cost-adding change in the material’s formability characteristics may be offset by adaptations during production.
Once an automotive manufacturer determines that environmental weight requirements rule out the use of steel, the next step is to talk with an aluminum processor to assess available options. By partnering with a material processor that takes a Systems Engineering approach to aluminum development, an automotive manufacturer can gain the benefits of light weight, corrosive resistance and a high strength-to-weight ratio.