Automotive Construction - Materials Make the Machine
By Steven Marks / July 1, 2015
Since the very beginning of the automobile, manufacturers progress rapidly to make their products stronger, more efficient, safer, and perform better. One technology often overlooked in the industry relates to vehicle construction. By which we mean, the various materials that go into producing these marvels of technology. From steel to aluminum, plastics and carbon fiber, carmakers use these invaluable materials throughout.
Starting from the birth of the automobile, the vision of founders and engineers was to make their products better in any way possible. The Ford Model T is noted as one of the first vehicles to use mass production techniques, which included the nation's first true automotive assembly line. The early Model T was constructed of steel sheets over wood construction, but in later years saw bodies of all steel. This inexpensive technique was used for mass production noted for its strength and durability.
Nationally acclaimed as America's favorite sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette is constructed of a combination of lightweight materials, especially fiberglass. The material was light, didn't corrode, resisted dings, and was performance oriented.
Since 1953, fiberglass was yet another legendary attribute to the Corvette's traditional heritage of employing cutting edge materials and components to help optimize performance.
In the early 1990s, a different kind of car company developed by General Motors started the use a high strength thermoplastic composite material. The Saturn brand marketed this unique selling proposition as dent resistant body panels, generating buzz by launching commercials with shopping carts running into the vehicles in busy shopping areas. In showrooms, customers were encouraged to physically kick panels to show off its durability and versatility. Although the Saturn products were fully undercoated with high strength steel to reinforce safety and rigidity, the Saturn brand marketed the new technology well. The material soon ceased production after the constructive parts didn't age well over time.
Also launched in early 1990s, the sophisticated Audi brand introduced its latest flagship sedan, the A8. The stunning sedan originated an innovative way to think of performance, efficiency, and performance. The Audi Space Frame, or ASF showed the industry that aircraft grade aluminum alloy is actually more rigid and stiffer than steel, and contributes to lighter weight overall. Even today, Audi still consistently uses the material in not only its frame for select exclusive models, but also as hybrid construction with various body panels on the body.
Modern exotic automotive manufacturers like McLaren, utilize a space age technology that underlines lightweight material with high strength fiber. Carbon fiber uses weaved reinforced polymer, typically backed by fiberglass to create a high strength-to-weight ratio. Carbon fiber can be expensive to produce, and typically reserves its limitation used in production for high line automakers. Besides base built construction, many automakers also use carbon fiber parts to help lower weight overall.
To shape some of the sharp curves, or bold styling cues, some manufacturers like General Motors have used hydroform steel. Utilizing a high-pressure water system, the flexible, yet rigid metal is shaped into a variety of complex shapes and curves to fit into place for even the tightest of tolerances to close the gaps. This cost-effective technique is especially prominent in high-end sports cars, as it helps to ensure lightweight materials are produced effectively.
Many automotive manufacturers have used all of the mentioned construction materials for decades. Carmakers are always looking for new, innovative technologies for several reasons to enhance safety and performance. The future calls for the creation of new materials that utilize durability, strength, and performance. As production continues to focus on lighter weight material, automakers should start to see a shift for a decrease in cost for production.
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