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Aluminum

A leap in forming

By Corinna Petry

Above: The 2017 Aston Martin DB11—which debuted at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show—contains aluminum formed by the HFQ method perfected by Impression Technologies Ltd.

Machinery builder and research startup develop a process to hot form aluminum for lightweight commercial applications

May 2016 - A designer and builder of production technology and equipment is well aware of the urgent need to reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing operations from our planet, and has introduced a breakthrough for aluminum parts production that helps realize the goal. A knight in shining armor, you might say.

Ulricehamn, Sweden-based AP&T (Automation Presses & Tooling) developed the production equipment that helped one customer, Impression Technologies Ltd., perfect a new process: solution heat treatment, forming and in-die quenching, or HFQ.

Dr. Alistair Foster, chief technical officer for Impression Technologies, in Coventry, United Kingdom, says his company was launched in 2012 with the backing of research from the Imperial College London (founded by the forward-thinking Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria).

“The idea of the company was to commercialize this trademarked forming technique developed at Imperial College and at the University of Birmingham,” says Foster. He credits Professors Jianguo Lin and Professor Trevor Dean, who thought of a new way to process high-strength aluminum to create high-strength parts that are lightweight and can have complex forms. Ten years of research later the professors’ team brought the technology to a state where it was proven in the lab. The college obtained intellectual property (IP) protection and created a spinoff company.

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AP&T took part in an EU program, LoCoLite, to find low-cost lightweighting solutions.

Foster himself completed a fellowship while working on the technology and joined the new company in 2013. The technology was soon adopted for use by Lotus Cars, which had followed the research from a very early stage. 

But wait. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. What is this breakthrough? 

Hot and cold

With HFQ, says Foster, a manufacturer can take an aluminum blank and heat it up, “form it fast while it’s still at an elevated temperature, then hold it in the tool, which quenches the part into its final form until it is cold—distortion free. Then you can take the part and artificially age it to aluminum T6, which is fully hard. The HFQ is a tempering and forming process in one. You are putting shape into the metal, and preparing the microstructure for the artificial aging process.”

For grade 6082, the yield strength is 280 megapascals (MPa). “And for the 7000 series the yield strength can be 500 MPa. It’s a big leap,” says Foster. “The 6000 series has advantages with ductility and the 7000 series consists of very strong grades for specific applications.” It’s part of automotive structures designed for crashworthiness, for example.

“The automotive industry is looking at this because the strength is so high, and even for 6000 series, you will be able to do a lot with these materials. The key,” he continues, “is being able to temper as you form. The novelty and IP around it is understanding how a microstructure is put in a state to have good formability. It’s a dual process—adding geometry while the aluminum temperature drops from a heated state to a cooling state.”

What makes HFQ even more desirable is “it’s an incredibly repeatable process. What we have is a design by AP&T. The press is set up for repeatability. So the quality of parts come off uniformly.”

With the HFQ line, he says, “We are bringing complicated high-strength shapes to mass production.” And it’s efficient. “We are seeing production time of seconds per part. Compare that with superplastic forming, a much slower process with a forming time of minutes. For complicated parts, it may require 10 or 15 minutes.”

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Hot-formed aluminum parts in the grade 6000 series provide yield strengths of up to 350 megapascals.

The tools

AP&T has experience in building production equipment made to shape metal for automotive applications, starting in the 1960s with hydraulic presses. Today, “the demand for lightweight components is increasing and the big material push is for aluminum,” says Dr. Christian Koroschetz, director of technology development at AP&T. “That’s why we looked into technologies that produce high-strength, lightweight aluminum.”

AP&T took part in a European Union-sponsored project called LoCoLite, described as “an industry system enabling the use of a materials processing technology for low-cost forming of lightweight structures for transportation industries.”

A key part of the project was to develop production technology along with new lightweight processes. In working with Impression Technologies, “our task was to see how to change the production machine, the press automation system, the furnaces and be able to apply process to sheet metal forming,” Koroschetz explains.

The aluminum in AP&T’s HFQ line is hot, about 500 degrees Celsius. In some cases, says Koroschetz, “we can have a cycle time of 10 seconds or faster per part. If you have four parts in one stroke, it’s 10 seconds divided by four parts, or 2.5 seconds per part. That’s the goal for this production line.”

Aluminum is more efficient than steel in hot forming. “Press hardened steel cooling time in the die is slower. With aluminum, you don’t have to keep the press closed as long,” he says.

The production line at Impression Technologies is the first one completed. Inquiries are coming in fast; the lead time to deliver a complete HFQ line (once the customer obtains the license) would be about 12 months. AP&T retains complete control over the equipment build as it assembles everything in house. “We are a turnkey solution supplier,” Koroschetz says.

Some of those inquiries are coming from potential customers in North America.

“Because of the F-150, Ford Motor Co. is demanding so much aluminum from the market. So there is increasing interest for this hot forming technology in North America. It’s not as well developed as in Europe. Before you design your part for this, hot aluminum can be a much more complex shape and that’s why people are looking into it.”

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Car door produced by heat treatment, forming and in-die quenching (HFQ), which could save millions in tooling and die costs.

Platform integration

Impression Technologies’ Foster says the technology already matches the auto industry’s requirements so it is commercially viable. “We have capabilities in developing parts technology and the way parts are integrated into platforms to give maximum benefits” to automakers and their suppliers, he says, adding that Aston Martin began using the HFQ process to build its 2017 Aston Martin DB11.

One early adopter is PAB Group in Coventry, U.K., which purchased a license and is running HFQ formed parts on its presses. According to Foster, “PAB produces parts for the early adopters of the technology. PAB took a risk when the technology was new and it has seen a lot of rewards. They have received great interest from customers that want to reduce weight, increase part complexity or move to mass-production capable processes. They are at commercial quantities now.”

Asked what the trajectory of growth is for Impression Technologies, Foster says he “cannot divulge all companies we’re working with but we are working on different models at different stages, including body structures.”

For example, he says, HFQ will allow a parts producer to “take several different cold pressings and produce one HFQ pressing to replace the subassembly.” Up front, HFQ is more expensive part for part, but ends up being a cost savings for the platform as a whole. 

“There is a very huge opportunity. We are working with automakers that are already involved in aluminum parts, and helping them create lightweight, cost effective components that have geometric capabilities,” Foster says.

“Take the A post of a car. You want it nice and thin so it doesn’t obscure driver visibility. We are developing the technology, the hot forming simulation tools, and the manufacturing methods associated with it—together with partners. We are looking to get it to automotive OEMs to produce these parts themselves with our training and licensing agreements.”

The production methods are scalable, he notes. “Millions of parts a year are totally viable with this technology. We have a large-scale mass production mission.”

Naturally, AP&T is ready for that outcome, too, says Koroschetz. The bargain for both the equipment builder and the user is that using 6000 and 7000 series aluminum, you can form very complex shaped components in one press, achieving part integration and process integration. The presses don’t even need to be large, he says, and “there are all kinds of efficiencies.”

Shining armor, indeed. MM

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