[BEST OF 2022] Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company

JEC Composites Magazine speaks to Alan Banks to better understand how, with the increase in the use of electric cars, weight has become a priority for all manufacturers as range and fuel economy are the main characteristics of the vehicle affected by weight.

[BEST OF 2022] Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company

10 minutes, 50 secondes

This news has been originaly published on February 1, 2022 and was the most popular news of February.

Alan Banks is the Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company. His role is to reduce commercial vehicle weight for maximum efficiency. He has a degree and masters degree from the University of Bradford and is a fellow of the IET and IKE. Alan is a director of Composited UK. 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.

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.

Currently, his role with the Innovation and Research team is to lead projects that employ lightweight technologies and mass production applications, including the choice of materials from advanced steel to full composite structures, including hybrid technology.

JEC Composites Magazine: You are Project leader of The Composite Hybrid Automotive Suspension System Innovative Structure (CHASSIS) research project aims to reduce vehicle weight thus improving payload, range and fuel economy without loss of functionality. Which are the materials used to reduce the weight? Are you going to use hybrid technology?
Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company: “For the CHASSIS project we used a combination of materials from aluminium, to glass fibre with different types of carbon fibre. Our mantra is ‘the right material in the right place’ and this philosophy dictates everything we do in our lightweighting projects. We understand that carbon fibre is an emotive topic in the mass transportation arena due to costs but by using SMC, woven and NCF materials, and using them only where absolutely necessary, we are able to keep the costs affordable whilst optimising the performance. In the CHASSIS project for instance, we didn’t use UD prepreg material due to the cost vs weight business equation that we selected.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Which manufacturing methods are you evaluating?
Alan Banks: “Unless the manufacturing principles that support mass production are key. For the CHASSIS project for instance, we only extrusion, compression moulding, forging, injection moulding and pultrusion. In previous projects we employed tape layering ILO filament winding but as we all know, the manufacturing selection in composite materials is largely dictated by the capacity volume of the parts required. At Ford, we have state of the art experts and facilities that we are able to draw upon to ensure that the processes are optimised.

We need to recognise that hydrogen will be a significant part of everyones future so filament winding and perhaps carbon fibre steering will develop exponentially to satisfy this growing market.”

Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company
The CHASSIS project sets an affordable target of $9 per kg for weight saving whilst achieving an aggressive weight reduction of 40% – approximately 30 kg. The components are the front subframe, lower control arm and the rear deadbeam axle from a Ford Transit. The opportunity was taken to develop innovative designs for each component. The subframe incorporates multiple composite materials (continuous carbon fibre biaxial 24k twill weave at 0/90°, ±45° and 0/90° with 6 plies for the upper and lower pressings and SMC for the rear panel) in combination with die-cast aluminium side rails which are structurally bonded with a takt time of sub-5 minutes to provide the integrity to the vehicle.

JEC Composites Magazine: Generally speaking, in which sectors do you think there will be the greatest development of the composite materials industry?
Alan Banks: “In terms of the industry, I believe that the greatest developments will be in the sustainability area and the use of recycled fibres. The wind sector for instance is need of a commercial recycling process for glass fibre due to the growing volume of decommissioned turbine blades – and whilst it is possible to do this, its economic viability is hindered by the cheapness to manufacture of virgin material. It is in all of our interests to find a solution to this before we see legislation.

I believe we will start to see a shift in nano-technology in the coming years as these have tremendous potential to reduce weight even further and improve performance.

In the automotive sector specifically, I think the biggest gains of composites will be in the structural areas as these offer the biggest weight reduction possibilities. This may also be accompanied by a shift in the way vehicles are manufactures as most volume auto producers are geared for sheet metal and welding. For composites to really expand, the manufacturing methodologies will need to be changed radially to take advantage of the technology on offer.”

JEC Composites Magazine: The scenario of use of advanced composite materials compared to the last decade has completely changed, the world of composite materials applied to the Automotive and Motorsport sector is constantly evolving: which projects and which new materials in your future?
Alan Banks: “In automotive, I’m expecting to see advances in new material manufacturing to bring the cost down and improvements in the sustainability of the manufacturing processes. And as I mentioned previously, I think nano-materials might start to play a role in composite technology as these costs come down and the dispersion techniques are better understood. And then as we look to a sustainable future, developments in thermoplastic are likely to become important. Thermoplastic is currently banned in top-level motorsport so it will be interesting to see how these progress upwards.

We may start to see 3D printed parts looking attractive for customisation as customers start to demand bespoke products. Whilst additive manufacturing techniques are improving every day, their speed is still an inhibitor to mass production. But small scale bespoke manufacturing is a real niche for AM and I can see this become important for product differentiation.”

JEC Composites Magazine: Environmental impact, sustainability, recycling: composite materials and particularly CFRs (Carbon Fiber Remanufacturing) do not have a good reputation. What is your vision on the issue and how do you plan to act?
Alan Banks: “The reputation is well deserved but its getting better. You say CFR in particular but I don’t think that is correct. Carbon has great value as a recycled commodity and so the research is currently being directed in this area. That’s not a bad thing as new developments are happening all the time. I’m working to promote sustainable recycling processes to develop truly world class solutions for recovery of fibre and resins using a water based and sustainable processes. This is truly groundbreaking and will complement existing pyrolysis and solvolysis processing.

Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company
The rear deadbeam axle utilises a pultruded combination of epoxy matrix and unidirectional glass fibre with carbon fibre woven 2×2 twill and non-crimp fabric. Post processing will be via length cutting only before being jig-located for structural bonding and riveting of suspension interface components. Bespoke aluminium extrusions have been designed for wheel bearing carriers, brake caliper mountings, damper attachments, spring seats and jounce bumper reaction plates. The bonding process will be matched to the 5 minute takt time of the subframe and lower control arm.

I’m working the British Standards Institute on their recycling Committee to get water based processes that don’t use pyrolysis to be given their own standard. I’ve been working with B&M Longworth on the DEECOM® process that uses steam decompression to reclaim the fibres and resin. Importantly, the fibres that it recovers are pristine in that the mechanical properties are the same as virgin fibre. Whereas pyrolysis damages the fibres and produces harmful gases and CO2; and solvolysis uses harmful chemicals and can also damage fibres, the DEECOM® process doesn’t produce any CO2 or harmful gases and is able to reclaim all of the fibres and resins. There are studies going on in the industry to determine the use cases for the resins and there is still work to do. But the results are looking very promising and we have several collaboration projects in the pipeline to move the technology on. This process works for all fibres. 

In my opinion, the biggest sustainability issue is glass fibre – and this is hugely overlooked. Wind turbine blades are being decommissioned globally as they go beyond their economic and structural life and being predominantly glass, are not being recycled . The cost of virgin glass material being so low is not encouraging the industry to look at solutions here but this is soon going to become a huge environmental issue and a solution needs to be found before the industry is legislated.

I’m currently looking at solutions within the UK for this issue that might upscale glass fibre to make the recycled material more valuable. I’m very excited by this work as I see glass fibre being a solution to a lot of the automotive material possibilities.”

JEC Composites Magazine: The high performance in the automotive sector that was previously intended exclusively for niche sectors such as racing and/or super cars, is now already starting to involve GTs, or cars with a lower price range than the previous items.
Alan Banks: “Yes it is and I think the customer base will soon start to realise the possibility of composites through additive manufacturing and customization. I still think we are some way away from seeing mass produced vehicles using composite materials except in the field of commercial vehicles. As we know, with electrification comes higher weight which drastically affects the payload efficiency of commercial vehicles, its imperative that this weight is offset to minimize the social-economic impacts that this will create. Lighter weight reduces the stress on the earth natural resources and on the supply chain as well as improving vehicle performance and range.

The other huge potential for composites is going to be in mass transportation, freight, off road vehicles and rail. I Chair the UK Vehicular Composites Group and in a zero-emission world, its quite clear that hydrogen is going to be the only viable solution for these industries. Carbon fibre for on-board storage of hydrogen will create a huge need for carbon fibre and it is imperative that the global supply chain is ready to meet this demand.”

JEC Composites Magazine: The maintenance of manufacturing production in industrialized, Western Countries, can only pass from major investments in R&D to lower the manufacturing costs of the products by increasing the productivity itself. What will be the market growth rate, growth momentum or market acceleration during the forecast period?
Alan Banks: “That is a very difficult question to answer globally because the social-economic conditions aren’t stable and I would expect to see a huge increase in demand when hydrogen storage vehicles come on-stream. A statistic that I heard was that if just 2% of vehicles were hydrogen powered, the world would need 40 times more carbon fibre than is currently produced globally. I think this perfectly highlights the potential scale of growth.”

Alan Banks, Lightweight Structures Supervisor at Ford Motor Company
The front lower control arm utilises an injection moulded core of long-fibre glass and PA12. This is then placed into the main injection moulding tool with a steel forging that attaches the ball joint taper, and is overmoulded by long fibre carbon PA12. Takt time for this component is also sub-5 minutes.

JEC Composites Magazine: What are the key factors driving the automotive market? What will be the size of the emerging automotive market in 2026? What trends, challenges and barriers will impact the development and size of the global automotive market?
Alan Banks: “I think that the Covid situation and the semi-conductor shortages have shown how precarious the supply chain can be. And the Evergiven container ship stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days also highlighted the fragility of this. As the world craves more resources, it is imperative that the whole supply chain is futured for growth and sustainability. The growth of the auto market is expected to be steady towards 2030 growing about 1% year on year (pending a recovery from Covid and the semi-conductor shortage) but the transition to zero-emission vehicles will skew the material demands as stated.

How the trends progress in autonomous vehicles will also play a part in the growth of the auto industry. In an autonomous world, ride hailing will be the norm with vehicle ownership dwindling. This will massively change the duty cycle of the vehicle as it will be working a lot of the time making demands of its structural components in an accelerated way from today. How these are legislated may also play a crucial part in their design and choice of materials. How different countries legislate these rules will be a challenge for every auto maker.”

JEC Composites Magazine: How do you see the market opportunities and threats faced by suppliers in the global automotive industry?
Alan Banks: “It is important that suppliers understand what is going on in the marketplace and start to plan changes accordingly. The changes are going to be huge but the biggest changes will be in developing plans for carbon neutrality. All OEM’s have plans to be carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest and this includes the supply chain. This isn’t just driven by legislation but also by consumer demand and expectations. Suppliers have to recognize this and develop plans to support these actions without compromising quality, performance or costs to allow mass production.

Threats will only happen if suppliers don’t recognize the changing environment and fail to act. I always remind people that in any great technology change, there will be people that make money successfully and sustainably. The opportunities are there and there is enough notice for the supply base to diversify to take advantage of the new technology.”

JEC Composites Magazine: The transformations taking place in the automotive sector due to growing innovation, connectivity, autonomous driving, to what extent will they involve the composite materials industry?
Alan Banks: “There are 2 clear factors driving the auto industry at the moment. The drive for zero emissions and the development of connected autonomous vehicles. Both of these factors will have implications for the composites industry. As we already discussed, zero -emission vehicles will need a resilient source of carbon fibre – whether that is for lightweighting or hydrogen storage. But this need is well understood and the auto manufactures together with the supply chain globally would do well to be to be prepared for this.

Autonomy may not be a factor you were thinking of for the deployment of composite materials but load sensing components may well be required for these vehicles. In an autonomous world, it will be imperative that structures are maintained properly so early detection of potential issues will be required to avoid costly down-time or maintenance. The easiest way of achieving this is through composite materials with embedded sensoring. This also opens up the potential for nano-materials to be used.

Hydrogen fuel cells and on-board storage as I’ve mentioned earlier will be a huge growth area not just for the material but for the manufacture of the storage vessels. I think it will be important that these are made in the country of the vehicle manufacture as shipping will lead to increased costs and even more CO2 generation.

The transformations for the auto sector are gathering pace more and more as the world transitions to zero emission vehicles and the opportunities are out there for true innovation. At Ford we pushing the boundaries on our vast resources to ensure we meet our customers needs in a timely manner whilst drawing on 119 years of heritage that is simply second to none.  We have some very exciting times ahead of us.”

More information www.ford.com