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Toyota Poised to Leapfrog Competition with New Wheel-Making Technology

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Toyota has teamed up with The University of British Columbia to refine a manufacturing process for aluminum wheels that will significantly cut costs and improve product quality.

Like many North American manufacturers, Delta, British Columbia-based Canadian Autoparts Toyota Inc. (CAPTIN) is facing intense pressure from competitors in Mexico and China where labour and other costs are lower. Rising transportation costs are also making it more expensive to ship wheels to Toyota's plants in southern Ontario and the mid-western United States.

"In order to maintain our competitiveness, we need to leverage technology to increase the value of aluminum wheels by making them stronger and lighter, and at the same time reduce their manufacturing costs, which is the main purpose of this project," says Yongning Wang, CAPTIN's General Manager.

Automotive Partnership Canada (APC) awarded nearly $727,000 to the $1.8 million project, with CAPTIN providing the balance in cash, personnel, equipment and other resources. By 2014, CAPTIN expects to have a mature and proven technology that can be incorporated into its manufacturing operations.

Established in 1983 as Toyota's first investment in Canada, CAPTIN's 24,645 square-metre plant designs, develops and manufacturers about 1.7 million aluminum wheels annually. The APC project is focusing on the core, and most critical technology for the production of aluminum wheels—the casting process. Because of safety requirements and the high value placed on styling and finishing, aluminum wheels are considered one of most challenging parts to make on a car.

The casting process has advanced little over the years, until now. Toyota has developed a next-generation technology that uses water-cooled, low-pressure die casting to produce a superior product compared to conventional air-cooled processes. The next step is to make the new approach cost-effective.

"Even though our process provides a higher value to customers, it is not economical to proceed if we can't bring the cost down," says Dr. Wang.

The research team is optimistic it can reign in those costs within three years by using sophisticated computer-aided design tools to understand the fundamental science happening in the casting process.

"If you look at the latest generation of aircrafts, a lot of the engineering was done through virtual engineering. We're essentially doing the same thing but with wheel technology," says Steve Cockcroft, whose University of British Columbia team includes Daan Maijer and André Phillion, and postdoctoral fellow Carl Reilly.

CAPTIN and The University of British Columbia have been collaborating since the late 1990s to develop a computer model for optimizing the design of low-pressure die casting. That research resulted in Toyota transferring its die design operations from Japan to Delta in 2003.

With this current project, CAPTIN will incorporate technologies into its operations as soon as they are developed and tested, with initial cost savings expected within the first year or two.

"This isn't about re-inventing the wheel, it's about reinventing the process to make the wheel so that we can improve the engineering process and drive down manufacturing costs," says Dr. Cockcroft. "This type of value-added engineering represents a real opportunity for CAPTIN to leapfrog past the competition."