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Canadian expertise helps automakers form sheet metal to create stronger, lighter vehicles

A Canadian research team is just a few years away from overcoming a major challenge facing automotive manufacturers: how to mass produce doors, hoods, trunks and other car body parts that are stronger and lighter, without sacrificing design flexibility.

The new technology could also mean big business for one southern Ontario auto parts supplier that is collaborating with engineers at the University of Windsor, the University of Waterloo and Ford Motor Company on a $1.9-million Automotive Partnership Canada project.

Amino North America Corporation (ANAC) is already a world leader in sheet hydroforming, a process that uses a high-pressure hydraulic fluid to shape steel, aluminum and other sheet materials to make complex shapes for vehicles. Within the next two to three years, it plans to combine its process with a revolutionary technology called electrohydraulic forming (EHF).

The EHF process discharges a high voltage current into a water-filled chamber. Pressure created by the discharge provides the mechanical force necessary to form sheet metal into shapes not possible with conventional metal forming processes.

"This hybrid technology is quite significant from a business perspective," says John Cass, sales manager for ANAC, which employs about 50 people at its St. Thomas plant. "We would be able to use higher strength materials, allowing us to produce vehicles that are lighter, more fuel efficient and with more complex shapes, while reducing part costs."

EHF can also produce more parts per work shift than conventional processes, thereby increasing production capacity and lowering overall manufacturing costs.

Dr. Sergey Golovashchenko, EHF's chief architect and Technical Leader at Ford Research & Advanced Engineering in Dearborn, Michigan, indicated that the key advantage of EHF is its ability to form high-strength metal into complex shapes with sharper corners and smaller features. For example, automotive parts manufacturers currently use heavier-gauge sheet materials to produce trunk lids with the depression needed for the licence plate. Marrying Amino's hydroforming process with Ford's EHF technology will make it possible to form these parts with sharper angles using thinner and stronger metals, thereby achieving a significant reduction in weight.

"Automotive sheet materials are deformed to the limits of their formability," says lead investigator Dr. Daniel Green at the University of Windsor. "In order to further reduce the weight, you have to increase the strength or use more expensive alloys, and this makes it increasingly difficult to produce shapes that are aesthetically appealing. EHF overcomes these limitations."

While ANAC is primarily a Tier 1 supplier to Ford and other automobile companies, it sees EHF having traction in new markets such as agricultural, aeronautical, power generation and even appliances.

"Appliance manufacturers would love to have a pocket in the door that you could use to open the fridge without having the added expense of buying and mounting a handle," says Cass. "EHF would give us an opportunity to approach these markets with a new capability."

Moving research to the shop floor
Dr. Green is collaborating with Dr. Michael Worswick at the University of Waterloo and 12 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to provide Ford and ANAC with the scientific data they need to understand why sheet materials become so much more formable in this process.

"Nobody would go ahead and build dies to produce automotive parts without first developing computer models capable of predicting the outcome of the forming operation," explains Dr. Green. "And these computer models can only be developed after a thorough and systematic investigation of the science that explains the behaviour of the sheet material."

As part of the project, researchers will incorporate their material models into computer codes so that designers can accurately simulate the manufacture of complex parts, well before any tooling is built. The final step will be to create guidelines to enable engineers to start designing parts that will be made with EHF technology.

Cass says they will begin testing results in their operations as soon as they become available.

"Having the academic partners, the materials partners and our OEM partner all involved covers all the bases needed to get this technology into production," says Cass. "These are things that we as a small supplier couldn't do ourselves."