'Composites can meet the challenges of future vehicles'

Interview with Alan Banks, Lightweight Innovations Manager at Ford Motor Company

We continue our interviews to understand how the composites sector will evolve. We asked Alan Banks, Lightweight Innovations Manager at Ford.


Mr. Banks, is the lightweighting of vehicles a necessary challenge in your opinion?
«Lightweighting for lightweighting sake is an emotive subject as the current technologies tend to add cost. In an electrified vehicle (EV) world, it almost becomes a moot point as EV performance is usually far superior to combustion engines. Where lightweight can help of course is performance and range which is still a customer issue in most cases. Where lightweight really starts to have an effect is on commercial vehicles. Increased weight of commercials detracts from payload and range on an EV platform and to satisfy the customer needs and to maintain the payload efficiency, we have to recover that as much as is economically possible. The challenges are cost, scalability, total cost of ownership and understanding full life-cycle implications».

What are the main obstacles to this challenge and how to overcome them?
«I think the main obstacles are all of the above!!! Plus for mainstream and established manufacturers, we have plants, vehicle lines and customers that we have to maintain and take on the journey to EV. This means that we need to transition our business and infrastucture from ICE to EV over a period of time to make sure that we have a strong grip on the future whilst satisfying the needs of our legacy customers. Start-up companies don’t have this issue of course but neither do they have the depth of understanding of how to conssitantly produce vehicles at scale with quality or the in-depth history and understanding of a strong customer base. As with all obstacles, the way to overcome them is to present a strong business case to justify the technology. And in an EV world, that is becoming harder. But there are some strong gains that can be made with the right approach that can make inroads into this with the right innovations».

Can composite materials help meet this challenge? What do you think their future is?
«I think composites are ideally placed to meet this challenge. One of the biggest issues is that when we say ‘composite’ most people leap to the assumption that we are talking about ‘carbon fibre’ – but this isn’t the case. Composite technology evolution is rapid and the costs and scalability are now attractive enough to be taken seriously. As we start to see more work on connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) and as hydrogen starts to become prevalent this will change the perception entirely. CAV’s and their ride-hailing potential will also open up requirements for on-board sensoring which composite materials are just made for. CAV’s are likely to spend a lot more of their time driving than personally owne vehicled as their strength and durability will demand stronger and more durable materials. Likewise, in a hydrogen world (H2), on-board fuel storage is via type IV pressure vessels which require carbon fibre. As these become prevalent, the carbon fribre production will increase allowing economies of scale to spill over onto other components».

How will the future of the car change after the pandemic?
«I think most people and most governments have seen the reduction in their CO2 signatures since the lockdown and want to maintain and accelerate their transition to zero emissions. Sales of traditional ICE powertrains will decline a lot faster as the EV charging infrastructure improves and H2 starts to pick up. As well as this, most cities are now banning older and more polluting vehicles from city centres and this will accelerate the rush for hybrids and ultimately zer0-emission vehicles. The technology improves more and more every week and these are very exciting times to work in the automotive arena».

Alan Banks is the Lightweight Structures Supervisor within Innovation and Research at Ford Motor Company. He started work at Ford in 1983 as an apprentice and worked in Chassis Engineering responsible for suspension systems on commercial vehicles until 2019 before his move to Innovation and Research. His remit with the Innovation and Research team is to lead projects with light-weighting technologies and applications in design with mass production capability. He was the team leader on the Composite Lightweight Automotive Suspension System (CLASS) project, which won the JEC World Automotive Application Innovation category in 2018. He is also leading the Composite UK Innovation Award winning Composite Hybrid Automotive Suspension System Innovative Structures (CHASSIS) project due for completion in 2021 and has 8 patents to his name.


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