Auto Service World
Feature   March 10, 2016   by Martha Uniacke Breen

How Advanced Materials Will Transform Collision Repair


The modern automobile, of course, is a marvel of 21st-century technology. Even modestly priced cars today are now, essentially, giant smartphones with wheels.
But at the same time, the imperative to make them safer, more energy-efficient, higher-performance and less environmentally costly has made them a lot more
difficult to repair. And one of the ways that has become most obviously manifest is in the materials used to make them.
Just as today’s automotive service technician is far more highly trained than a scant generation ago, today’s collision repair shop is a much more sophisticated operation. The advent of onboard electronics, integrated crash protection technologies, and other components requires much more precision repair techniques. And especially in the last few years, the advent of advanced materials –
aluminum, high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel, magnesium, carbon fibre –
has all but revolutionized the repair process.
Working with these materials to a professional standard requires considerable investment in equipment and training; there are no quick fixes. Yet, despite the costs of investing in the required tools and training, over the next few years, for most autobody shops the imperative will be evolve or die – the old days of being able to effect a professional repair simply through skilled visual inspection and conventional equipment are fading.
“In the last 24 months, we have spent over half a million dollars in training and $1.5 million in equipment,” says Lorenzo D’Allessandro, general manager of CSN~427 Auto Collision, a large collision repair operation in Toronto. “For some OE brands you may need as much as $450,000 of specialized tooling, plus training. And you still need the basic tools: spray booths, prep stations, general frame machines, welders.”
A recent report by McKinsey & Co. entitled “Lightweight, Heavy Impact: How carbon fibre and other lightweight materials will develop across industries, and especially automotive,” paints a fascinating look at how these materials are set to become commonplace within the next 20 years, or less. Among the motivators is, predictably, a burgeoning demand for lighter-weight vehicles to reduce CO2 emissions. But also important, alternative power sources – notably battery-powered electrics – require heavier batteries and related components, adding to the impetus to light-weight other parts of the vehicle.
The report divides lighter-weight vehicles into three groups. “Conventional,” comprising about two-thirds of the fleet, consists of mainly small- and medium-sized cars with conventional or hybrid powertrains, which mainly utilize high-strength steel. The next largest group, “Moderate,” relies on other lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, and to some extent carbon fibre, along with HSS. This category comprises most of the other third of the fleet, including most luxury and executive-class vehicles, as well as battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). The third group, “Extreme,” is statistically small and consists mainly of outliers with high carbon fibre content: primarily, niche luxury or premium BEVs.
“The majority of the vehicles [we see] are made with high-strength steel,” says D’Allessandro. “Some use ultra-high-strength steel and mild steel – many of these steels require specific welding equipment. Aluminum is becoming more mainstream (such as the Ford F-150), and requires more training and specialized equipment, rivet machines and bonding. Bonding is changing the way we fix vehicles: much more sophisticated. The product has to cure, which means more downtime.”
Along with their higher cost to repair, one of the principal challenges with these new materials is their higher production costs. High-strength steel, for example, is 20% lighter than conventional steel, but costs, on average, about 15% more per part. Aluminum is 40% lighter, but 30% more expensive. However, manufacturers are addressing these increased costs in a variety of ways, and the prognosis is that the cost will inevitably come down as they become more commonplace in the market.
The most interesting part of the report looks at carbon fibre and its potential to go from a niche material today, mainly restricted to high-end vehicles, to the material of the future. Carbon fibre is by far the lightest-weight and most malleable of the materials being used in production automobiles today; it provides unparalleled freedom both in design and adaptability, durability, and strength. (It was originally developed, after all, by design engineers at NASA.) But at the moment there are serious barriers that have prevented its mass penetration in the automotive market.
The most immediate barrier, of course, is the material’s cost, which is in the neighbourhood of five to six times as high as steel. But as mentioned, cost is a variable that, if other things were equal, should be overcome in ensuing years as use of the material becomes more widespread and supply increases.
But there are more serious problems.
At the top of the list, repair and maintenance of carbon fibre is much more difficult than with other materials, including
aluminum and high-strength steel. The nature of the product is such that damage is not generally detectable by visual inspection, or even conventional electronic measuring equipment; it requires sophisticated (and expensive), specialized detection equipment to reveal stress fractures: thermal, X-ray, or ultrasonic, for example. For some shops, investment in the equipment and training required to repair damaged carbon fibre components may be reasonable (some OE-certified shops, for example); however, for others, replacement of damaged components is the only viable alternative, producing a higher cost for consumers.
Another issue with carbon fibre is its limited recyclability. European standards require that at least 85% of a vehicle be recyclable, but the technology for effectively recycling carbon fibre is still in its infancy. Some progress has been made in grinding it down to a secondary material that can be used to make lesser-quality products – much like the early days of plastics recycling, where used plastic could be made into park benches and so on – but the technology still has a long way to go before it can become truly cost-effective. Other problems with carbon fibre are related simply to the fact that it is a relatively recent invention. Production costs are not only high, but also resource-heavy, which further reduces its energy efficiency rating.
And crucially, there are still unknowns about carbon fibre’s long-term performance in vehicles: how well it maintains its strength over the service life of a vehicle, and to date, a shortage of comprehensive crash-performance testing. On the other hand, growing interest in the material means that all of these challenges are being addressed – not just in the automotive industry but across a range of industries, notably the aviation and alternative energy fields.
The report concludes by predicting that of all the advanced materials now being used and tested in the automotive industry, high-strength steel will continue to lead the way for the next decade or so. Its low cost (compared to other new materials) and light weight, along with ease of repair and maintenance, will continue to drive demand, especially in smaller and mass-market vehicles.
However, HSS’s primacy won’t last forever. The authors see its prominence fading within the next 20 years, in favour of aluminum, which, of course, is already making strong inroads in both luxury and increasingly, mainstream cars and trucks. The report goes on to say that, over the long term, carbon fibre may eventually take the place of much of this market. Both carbon fibre and aluminum are predicted to grow exponentially within the next 20 years or so – perhaps even more quickly, if the barriers to entry of carbon fibre are reduced more quickly than is currently predicted, or CO2 reduction targets are further tightened. It’s a daunting, but fascinating, prospect – and it’s closer than you think. nJN


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