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UK Universities are 3-D printing lighter, brighter car parts

The Functional Lattices for Automotive Components (FLAC) project, supported by the Universities of Nottingham and Liverpool, hopes to develop lightweight, highly efficient vehicle components

The three-year project, backed by US$2.14 million of funding, will investigate how components such as brake calipers, heat sinks for LED headlights, and power train sub-systems can be made significantly lighter and perform better. The project is led by HiETA Technologies, a company specialising in thermal management and light-weighting, as well as Alcon Components, Added Scientific, Reinshaw PLC, and Moog Controls .

The project claims that the most potentially effective way to reduce CO² emissions is to increase the efficiency of components via the reduction in their weight. This works because lighter parts need less energy to move them. It is hoped that the project will achieve between a 40% and 80% mass weight reduction in vehicle parts.

The University of Nottingham team are concentrating on the construction of parts through selective laser melting (SLM). SLM uses a 3-Dimensional Computer Aided Design (CAD) model to digitally reproduce an object from melted sections of aluminium alloy powder, layer upon layer. The melted particles fuse and solidify to form complex, lattice-structured, parts that that are very light-weight. Similarly, the method of SLM leads to increased component functionality and fewer separate parts needed.

Advanced lightweight material production serve to minimise wastage because only the required substances are incorporated into the built component. This reduces costs and the whole process has positive environmental implications; the aluminium powder waste is inherently recyclable while special tooling and hazardous cutting fluids used in production can be eliminated.

The FLAC project hopes to convincingly demonstrate the viability of industrialising the SLM process, including cost effective manufacturing routes and supply chain models. However, SLM also needs to be supported by a competent 3D printing infrastructure. There are concerns that such may not be advanced enough to keep up with industrialisation efforts. The accuracy of expected emission decreases, 16.97 g/km, is also uncertain.

Yet, there is obviously a great deal of potential in the project, for ICEs ad EVs alike – any reduction in the weight of components will also help to reduce the amount of energy needed to move the whole vehicle. This could greatly impact the development of EVs in terms of efficient design and elusive improvements in range capabilities through better fuel efficiency.


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