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Automotive Lightweighting Explored with Generative Design

Regulations drive the need for new design exploration

With the continuous need to reach regulatory fuel economy standards, reduced CO2 emissions, and performance demands, it’s safe to say that lightweighting is a major priority for the automotive industry. But it’s not as simple as just swapping out a material.


Automotive lightweighting is a balancing act to determine the right advanced materials, manufacturing methods, and design of the car and individual components. In the end, it does make a difference. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%-8% fuel economy improvement…Using lightweight components and high-efficiency engines enabled by advanced materials in one quarter of the U.S. fleet could save more than 5 billion gallons of fuel annually by 2030.”

Image courtesy of General Motors

Generative design is gaining traction among several automotive manufacturers looking to lightweight their components quickly and efficiently. With generative design, engineers can explore more options by inputting structural constraints and setting parameters for material, strength, and weight. Simultaneously, generative design will evaluate manufacturing methods for each output including additive, subtractive, and casting.

The technology combined with the power of cloud computing produces an array of solutions for an engineer to explore, going beyond what a human alone could accomplish in the same amount of time.

Continue reading to learn how three automotive manufacturers are forging a new path and embracing innovation to successfully lightweight their designs.

#1: General Motors buckles up with generative design

General Motors is committed to driving sustainable value. And the company is taking a big leap forward in automotive design to imagine a future of lighter and more efficient cars.

“Generative design is a way for us to explore different design solutions for parts and components of our vehicles by using the cloud and artificial intelligence to combine the engineer and the computer,” says Kevin Quinn, director of additive design and manufacturing, GM. “By getting them to work together, we can come up with part-design solutions that would be impossible to generate with either the computer or the engineer working on their own.”

Image courtesy of General Motors

In an initial proof-of-concept project, GM and Autodesk engineers applied generative design technology to reconceive a small, but important vehicle component—the seat bracket where seat belts are fastened. The software produced more than 150 valid design options based on parameters the engineers set, such as required connection points, strength, and mass.

The team zeroed in on a new design, whose organic structure no human could have imagined. The new seat bracket is 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than the original part, and it consolidates eight different components into one 3D-printed part, another major benefit of generative design.

GM plans to utilize generative design on future product designs, and as part of a multi-year alliance focused on innovation, GM and Autodesk will collaborate on projects involving generative design, additive manufacturing, and materials science.

#2: Honda R+D tests generative design for a lightweight crankshaft

While researching design technology such as topology optimization, Honda’s R&D arm in Japan discovered generative design and realized that it could greatly change conventional design norms. They decided to put generative design to test with a crankshaft—an engine part that requires extreme strength and durability.

Image courtesy of Honda R&D Co., Ltd.

“Crankshafts need to satisfy multiple functional criteria,” says Hirosumi Todaka, a mechanical and fluid machinery designer at Honda R&D’s advanced technology lab. “For example, its shape must be able to withstand combustion pressures, and the rotational balance must be maintained. These factors have dictated the crankshaft’s form to this day. Over the long history of engine development, the crankshaft design had become a foregone conclusion. Despite this, we set the challenging goal of designing a crankshaft to be 30% lighter than current models.”

Generative design offered what Todaka says was “a configuration I had not even considered as a designer.” The new crankshaft design exceeded goals with a surprising 50% weight reduction. The team is continuing to study the prototype and researching further applications of generative design for other parts.

#3: BAC creates one of the lightest wheels in the world with generative design

Lightweighting takes on a whole new meaning for Briggs Automotive Company (BAC). The Liverpool-based company designs and builds the BAC Mono, a street-legal race car that only weighs about 570 kilograms. In order to accelerate and optimize performance, they are constantly looking for further opportunities to save weight.

Image courtesy of Briggs Automotive Company

Using generative design technology, BAC—quite literally—reinvented the wheel. With a weight of only 2.2 kilograms (4.8 lbs), BAC produced a wheel that was an impressive 35% lighter than the previous version, and could be manufactured traditionally on a conventional 5-axis mill. The new wheel is not only lighter, but also met the structural requirements for approval and certification in Europe.

“We have 400 parts on the car that are machined from solid aluminum on a 3- or 5-axis milling machine,” says Ian Briggs, co-owner and design directory, Briggs Automotive Company. “Any one of those components could go into generative design and, for probably a very modest cost, be reduced in weight. We already mill them, so milling them a little bit longer with the advice of generative design would be the logical place for us to start saving weight. If there’s a chance to optimize the design, save weight, and still make it with the same process as before, it’s good value for the money and the weight savings. That seems entirely practical even today.”

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