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Q&A: Lightweighting In Manufacturing

John Bennett and Shirley Monte talk about the lightweighting trend that is sweeping the manufacturing industry.

Manufacturing Business Technology sat down with FLEXcon vice president John Bennett and business development manager Shirley Monte to learn more about the lightweighting trend that is sweeping the manufacturing industry.

What is the lightweighting trend?

Lightweighting is trending across manufacturing and industry in multitude of various applications. So, what the heck is “Lightweighting”? It’s just that, making a product lighter. Getting the weight out serves two purposes. It reduces the weight of the product, so it uses less energy to move. It also can include an effort to use fewer resources in general (thinner uses less plastic or metal for instance), therefore using as few scarce resources as possible. What is driving this trend? Some will say it’s sustainability but the honest truth is cost and performance.

Is lightweighting a new trend or have companies been looking to reduce weight of products for a while?

 Lightweighting is not a new trend, it is more like an ever-lowering bar. What once was considered light, is now considered a target for improvement. Take the Ford F-150 for example. The shift to an aluminum body was primarily to make the vehicle lighter. The change creates a ripple effect that causes or requires other changes to be made. Paints may need to change, adhesives may need to change, welding process may need to change, etc. If anything, this is a good example of how manufacturing is no longer static, it has become very dynamic. Material components need to be continuously adjusted to meet new demands.

Another industry example of light weighting is in the aerospace industry — pilots have many priorities but one of the biggest before taking off for each flight is calculating weight and balance. This is basically what determines the performance limits of a plane or helicopter, how much fuel it can carry, how much payload it can carry and of course how many passengers it can carry. Having an overloaded aircraft will definitely limit its performance, stress critical components and could have devastating circumstances. For airplane and helicopter manufacturers everything is about weight. Most manufacturers won’t consider anything that will add excessive weight to airplanes or helicopters because this means limiting factors in payload capacity and performance. So, what are some of the things companies are doing to lightweight their assets? One good example is alternative materials. Some helicopters use a different mechanical cyclic system because it reduces the need to install two different interconnected cyclic controls and only one combo cyclic in the center of the helicopter. Helicopter manufacturers constantly look into alternative materials like aluminum, carbon fiber and fiberglass for their fuselage design along with alternatives in insulation and other parts that will provided better performance and capacity. Above all, their main priority is safety and many of the new technologies employed in lightweighting also add safety enhancements.

What are the top benefits of lightweighting?

The most obvious benefit of lightweighting is in fuel use trends. The goal is to make the product either use less fuel to move itself or for the transit system that moves it to use less fuel. This is the case for a broad range of products — from transportation vehicles all the way to personal devices. Even a cell phone needs to be moved. A transit device gets it to its ownership destination, but additionally its owner has to move it around during use. So lightweighting is always a transportation issue, even when the transportation happens in your laptop bag.

What does this shift means for customers and prospects?

It really means that design minds need to be open. Old solutions may no longer be effective. Manufacturing supply chains are under constant strain to bring new options to the table. This has impacted product life cycles. What used to be in vogue for several years could now be obsolete. Waste streams, recycling demands, used supplies due to constant upgrades are now a normal part of the planning process. If an organization isn't working to embrace change or does not have leadership in place that embraces collaboration and can accept and manage change, it will have a tough time succeeding. It is important for customers, prospects and suppliers to recognize these mindsets when selecting supply chain partners.

What are some of the top materials being used in this lightweighting trend?  Which materials are becoming obsolete?

Metals are trending to aluminum over steel or to some exotics like titanium use in aerospace. Plastics are moving to thinner stronger grades as they are developed. They could include carbon filled composites, thermoplastic olefins and other materials. With electronics, thinner chemistries that manage heat and impact are being continuously researched (aerogels for example as opposed to standard polyimides).

What industries are most focused on lightweighting?

Any and all transportation related industries (auto, aerospace, mass transit, rail, etc.) are focused on lightweighting, as well as any product that has to be carried (electronics, consumer goods, luggage, etc.).

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