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Case Study for Press Energy

Case Study for Press Energy

The following study is a computerized analysis of the energy required to form a cross member with a hat-profile and a bottom embossment at the end of the stroke (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Cross section of a component having a longitudinal embossment to improve stiffness locally.1

 

Energy requirements increase with punch displacement, as shown in Figure 2, here energy curves are shown for Mild, HSLA 250/350, and DP 350/600 steels. The three dots indicate the start of the embossment formation at a punch depth of 85 mm.

Figure 2: Computerized analysis showing the increase in energy needed to form the component with different steel grades. Forming the embossment begins at 85 mm of punch travel.1

 

The last increment of punch travel to 98 mm requires significantly higher energy, as shown in Figure 3. Throughout the punch travel however, the two higher strength steels appear to maintain a constant proportional increase over the Mild steel.

Figure 3: A further increase in energy is required to finish embossing.1

Setting Draw Beads

A considerable force is required to set draw beads in AHSS before part formation begins. A nitrogen die cushion may be inadequate to fully set the beads, resulting in insufficient restraining force. Binder separation may occur, resulting in a loss of control for the stamping process and excessive wrinkling of the part or addendum.  Based on part geometry, the high impact load on the cushion may occur several inches from the bottom of the press stroke. Since the impact point in the stroke is both a higher velocity point and now at a de-rated press tonnage, shock loads develop and can cause damage to mechanical presses. Additional flywheel energy is dissipated by the high shock loads well above bottom dead center of the stroke.  Staggering the heights of the nitrogen cylinders so they do not all engage at the same time is one way to reduce the shock load (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Staggered nitrogen cylinders designed to reduce the initial shock load when setting draw beads by engaging at different depths in the press stroke. 2

A double-action press will set the draw beads when the outer slide approaches bottom dead center, where the full tonnage rating is available and where the slide velocity is substantially lower. This minimizes any shock loads on die and press with resultant load spikes less likely to exceed the rated press capacity.

 

Sources:
1  G. Hartmann, “Das Spektrum Moderner Stahlfeinbleche-Festigkeiten und Auswirkungen auf die Umformung” Verschleißschutztechnik, Schopfheim, Germany (2004).
2  Courtesy of Peter J. Mooney, Managing Director, 3S Superior Stamping Solutions LLC

Header Image: Courtesy of Komatsu

Press Requirements: Servo Presses

Press Requirements: Servo Presses

Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS) forming challenges can lead to issues with the precision of part formation and stamping line productivity. The stamping industry is developing more advanced die designs as well as advanced manufacturing techniques to help reduce fractures and scrap associated with AHSS stamped from traditional presses. A Servo-driven Press1 is a significant option that has promising results when forming AHSS.

Characteristics of Servo Presses

A Servo Press is a press machine that uses a servomotor as the drive source. The advantage of the servomotor is that it can control both the position and speed of the output shaft compared to a constant cycle speed. In conventional mechanical presses, the press cycles at constant speed and press loads develop slowly, building power to their maximum force at bottom dead center (180-degree crank position), and then they reverse direction. In comparison, the Servo Press uses software to control press speed and position, which is much more flexible.
Servo Presses have a closed-loop feedback system to more accurately control cycle rate and loads, hence delivering a key advantage, which is the application of very high forming loads early in the stamping stroke. New forming techniques have been developed utilizing these features, and automakers are finding that with the use of the Servo Press, more complex part geometries can be achieved while maintaining dimensional precision.

Servo Presses have only been around for about 10 to 15 years, and so are considered “new technology” for the automotive industry. Recent growth in the use of Servo Presses parallels the increased use of AHSS in the structure of new automobiles. A cut-away of a Servo Press is shown below in Figure 1 to give a better understanding on the drive mechanism.

Figure 1: The Servo Press Cut-away 2

Types of Servo Presses

1) Servo motor and ball screw driven press: These Servo Presses employ ball screws to reduce the friction on the screws. Unlike traditional screw presses, this press does not require a clutch/flywheel and the slide velocity can be altered throughout forming. A notable feature of the ball screw type Servo Press is that the maximum force and slide speed are available at any slide position. This can be applied to almost all the forming methods. This capability proves to be very useful for forming with a long working stroke such as an extrusion, and for forming that requires a high-speed motion at the end of the formation.

The torque capacity of the servo motor, the load carrying capacity of the ball screw, and the reduction of the belt drive limit the maximum load. One solution to increase the power of the ball screw driven Servo Press is to increase the number of motors and driving axles (spindles). The only problem with this solution is the cost increases tremendously. Figure 2 shows a mechanism of hybrid Servo Press.

Figure 2: Operating mechanism of a hybrid Servo Press 3

2) Servomotor driven crank press: This press provides a lower-cost alternative compared to ball screw style Servo Presses. Crank presses have a high torque servomotor directly attached to the press drive shaft. A few press manufacturers developed C-Frame presses, which combine the servo driving mechanism with the conventional press structure. These presses are visually similar to mechanical presses, but the servo motor replaces the flywheel, clutch, and main motor. When the main shaft rotates at a constant speed, the stroke-time curve mirrors that of a conventional mechanical press. To increase power (for higher forming loads), crank presses are coupled with two connecting rods.

3) Servomotor driven linkage press: Linkage mechanisms are often used for presses to reduce the slide velocity and increase the load capacity of a given motor torque near the bottom dead center. Servomotor driven linkage presses prove to be advantageous in increasing the approaching and returning speeds by slowing down the slide speed in the working region within the stroke. They also have the advantage of maintaining high load capabilities through a considerably long working stroke.

4) Hybrid Servo Press: The knuckle joint and the linkage mechanisms are used to increase the press power with the crank shaft mechanism, and they can be combined with the ball screw mechanisms for Servo Presses.

5) Servomotor driven hydraulic press: These hydraulic presses have been developed because the high-power servomotors achieve higher slide speed compared with the conventional Servo Presses.

 

Advantages of Servo Presses

Servo Press technology has many advantages compared to mechanical presses when working with AHSS materials. Press manufacturers and users claim advantages in stroke, speed, energy usage, quality, tool life and uptime; these of course are dependent upon part shape and forming complexity.

1) Adjustable Stroke: The Servo Press has an adjustable stroke; the slide motion can be programmed to exert the required press load for deep draw stampings and then switch to different program routines to allow for shallow part stampings, or even blanking. This makes the Servo Press very versatile.

2) Speed: Compared to a standard mechanical press, Servo Presses manufacturers claim up to 37% increased cycle rates, which translates into better stamping plant productivity. Figure 3 shows cycle rates for comparable stroke heights for both a Servo Press and a traditional mechanical press.

Figure 3: Cycle Rates for Servo and Mechanical Presses 3

3) Energy Savings: The Servo Press has no continuously driven flywheel, cutting the costs of energy consumption. This is especially true in large capacity presses. The installed motor power is greater than that of a mechanical press whose capacity is comparable. However, throughout the stamping operation, the servo-driven motor is used only while the press is moving since the Servo Press has no continuously driven flywheel. Also contributing to nominal energy savings is the dynamic braking operation of the servo driven motor. Through this operation, the braking energy is transferred back into the power system. It is also possible to install an external energy storage feature to make up for energy peaks while reducing the nominal power drawn from the local power supply system (in cases where it is economically justified).

Figure 4 shows a comparison between a Servo Press and a traditional mechanical press with respect to energy use and storage. In a Servo Press, energy from deceleration of the slide is stored in an external device and tapped when the press motion requires more than 235 HP for each motor. The stored energy (maximum of 470 HP) is thus used during peak power requirements, enabling the facility power load to remain nearly constant, around 70 HP.

Figure 4: Energy vs. Displacement for Servo Press 3

 

4) Quality: Better forming stability translates into fewer part rejections.

5) Longer tool life: Decreasing the tool impact speed while simultaneously reducing the cycle time reduces impact loading, thus maximizing tool life. Increased lubrication effectiveness has been observed and using pulsating or oscillating slide motion can further extend tool life.

6) Uptime: Synchronized clutching and extended brake life allow for less frequent maintenance and better equipment uptime.

 

We have much more information we can share with you about these presses, more than we can fit into one blog. We encourage you to download your free copy of the AHSS Application Guidelines at worldautosteel.org and have a look at Section 3.C.6. Our next blog will provide a case study on Press Energy.

 

Sources:
1 Dr. T. Altan, Professor at Ohio State University
2 Courtesy of AIDA America
3 Courtesy of P. Mooney archives

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE:  Press line with ServoDirect Technology, courtesy of Schuler

AHSS Energy, Heat and Lubrication

AHSS Energy, Heat and Lubrication

Lubrication is an important input to almost every sheet metal forming operation. The lubricants have the following interactions with the forming process:

1. Control metal flow from the binder.
2. Redistribute strains over the punch.
3. Maximize/minimize the growth of strain gradients (deformation localization).
4. Reduce surface damage from die wear (galling and scoring).
5. Remove heat from the deformation zone.
6. Change the influence of surface coatings.

All these effects become more important as the strength of the sheet metal increases. Therefore, special attention to lubrication is required when considering AHSS.

Higher strength steels (HSLA and AHSS) have less capacity for stretch with a lower n-value compared to mild steels. Due to their strength, deformation forces to achieve the part geometry can be quite high. Additionally, these higher strength materials are often specified in thinner gages to allow for weight reduction, which makes them more prone to buckling than thicker steels. In order to maintain flatness, higher restraining forces are required [Since restraining force is a function of the coefficient of friction (C.O.F.) times the blankholder force, the restraining force falls and metal flow increases]. This combination results in higher contact pressure between the metal and the die, and higher interface temperatures. In order to counter these conditions, specialized lubricants that have both a lower coefficient of friction, and the ability to maintain chemistry and viscosity at elevated temperatures, are required.

Higher forming energy causes both the part and the die to increase in temperature. A study by Irmco1 measuring the temperatures on stampings produced from 350 MPa and 560 MPa steels clearly show increasing part temperatures with increasing strength levels, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Stamping Temperatures for High-Strength Steels.

The die temperatures are also significantly higher, and most conventional water-based or oil-based lubricants suffer viscosity reduction, with a corresponding increase in the coefficient of friction.
Ohio State University2 has performed many lubricant studies with AHSS steels; Figure 1 following shows the temperature profile on a DP900 stamping.

Figure 1: Temperature distribution for DP 900 Steel.

The highest temperatures are found on the die opening radius, and exceed 200C, reinforcing that part and die temperatures increase with increasing material strength. Without high-temperature additives, the lubricant effectiveness deteriorates, and heavy scoring and galling may result. As production speed increases (the number of parts per minute), the amount of heat generated increases, with a corresponding increase in sheet metal and die temperature.

One key to managing this heat problem when forming higher strength steels is application of a better lubricant. The chemistries of these better lubricants are less prone to viscosity changes and lubricant breakdown. Water-based lubricants disperse more heat than oil-based lubricants. Some parts may require tunnels drilled inside the tooling for circulating cooling liquids. These tunnels target hot spots (thermal gradients) that tend to localize deformation leading to failures.

Lubricants for AHSS Stampings

Some lubricant companies have developed stable, low C.O.F. lubricants; one example is the dry (barrier) lubricant. These polymer-based lubricants separate the sheet metal from the die. The dry lube C.O.F. for the same sheet metal and die combination can be 3 to 4 times lower compared to a good wet lubricant, and this performance acts to reduce the effective binder restraining force requirements. Since restraining force is a function of the coefficient of friction (C.O.F.) times the blankholder force, the restraining force increases and metal flow decreases. The net effect is a reduction in the amount of punch stretching required to form the part. Ultimately, forming strains and die wear are reduced. Fuchs Lubricants3 provides the guidelines shown in Table 2 for AHSS lubricant selection.

Table 2: Lubricant Selection Guide for AHSS.

Additives to Extreme Polymer (EP) lubricants create a protective barrier or film between the sheet metal and die. At elevated temperatures, the EP breaks down and deposits a metallic salt layer, which acts as a further temperature insulator (analogous to a surface coating on the die) and allows continued functionality of the lubricant. The complete separation of sheet metal and die by the barrier lubricant also means isolation of any differences in coating characteristics. Finally, a known and constant C.O.F. over the entire stamping greatly improves the accuracy of Computer Forming-Process Development (computerized die tryout).

 

Sources:
1 Courtesy of Irmco (Jeff Jeffery).
2 Courtesy of the Ohio State University (Menachem Kimchi)
3 Courtesy of Fuchs Lubricants.
Effect of Friction and Lubrication in Sheet Metal Stamping

Effect of Friction and Lubrication in Sheet Metal Stamping

Friction and lubrication are important factors when trying to accurately simulate Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS) metal forming processes. In this blog post Dr. Johan Hol, Development Manager from TriboForm Engineering, describes frictional influences that are unique to AHSS forming and how the accuracy of predicting AHSS automotive parts forming may be increased by using an alternative friction model.

The TriboForm software is quickly becoming popular in the world of sheet metal forming and simulation. What started out as an engineering service for tool makers has now evolved into the TriboForm software that works with all major metal forming simulation solutions, including AutoForm, Pam-Stamp and LS-Dyna.

In a sheet metal stamping process, the sheet is always in contact with the tools. This contact is not static but rather dynamic because the sheet metal is flowing over the surface of the tools, i.e. there is a relative motion between the sheet and the tools. Even though the sheet and the tool surfaces look smooth from an unassisted vision; under the microscope they show a complex shape.
The sheet and the tool surfaces have a roughness profile made of a series of peaks and valleys of varying height, depth and spacing, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. The roughness profiles of the sheet metal will differ by the type, grade and the coating of the material, while that for the tools will differ by the type of the material and the way they have been machined.

Because of these irregularities in the surfaces of the sheet and the tools, there is a resistance to relative motion. In simple words, this resistance to relative motion is called ‘friction’, and this is the reason why a lubricant is applied on the sheet metal to reduce its resistance and thus friction. The ratio between the force of friction and the contact force between the two moving objects is represented by a coefficient of friction “µ” whose value will depend on the tribology system itself and the forming process, such as temperature of the sheet, ram velocity, contact pressure and the strains in the sheet.

Figure 1 (Left) : Uncoated Mild Steel Sheet of Roughness 1.5 µm.
Figure 2 (Right): Cast Iron Tool Surface of Roughness 0.4 µm.

Now we know where the friction comes from and why we need to apply lubricant on the sheet before stamping. Let’s talk more about how the amount of lubrication affects the quality of a panel during forming. The following pictures give a better understanding of the effect of lubrication.

All the panels shown in the picture below are simulated in AutoForm using a friction model created by TriboForm. Please note that when a friction model is not used, the simulations are run using a constant value of friction coefficient “µ”. Using the friction model, the user can change the amount of lubrication when simulating the panels; and depending on how friction sensitive the panel is, the amount of lubrication will have different effect on the quality of the panel.

The fenders shown in Figures 3, 4 and 5 have been simulated using the same exact simulation set up, except the lubrication amount has changed and hence the part quality is different. The fender shown in Figure 3 is experiencing heavy wrinkling at the corners because of the high lubrication applied on the sheet before drawing.

The higher the amount of lubrication, the lower the resistance to motion, i.e. material then flows freely over the tool surfaces in an uncontrolled fashion, producing wrinkles. Conversely, when the amount of lubrication applied on the sheet is very low, the resistance to motion is very high. This high resistance compels the sheet metal to stretch more than required, producing a high amount of thinning, and in some cases, huge amount of splits, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3 (Left): Too High Lubrication.
Figure 4 (Right): Too Low Lubrication.

Therefore, it becomes critical to use the proper amount of lubrication while drawing the panel, and it becomes equally important to find out the optimum amount of lubrication needed. Figure 5 shows the fender free of wrinkles and splits with the proper use of lubrication.

Figure 5: Optimum Lubrication.

Just like any other manufacturing process, applying lubricant on the sheet will have some inconsistencies, i.e. noise. Meaning, if the user decides on using a lubrication amount of 1 g⁄m2 on the sheet to produce a defect free panel, what are the chances that the robots will spray the exact amount of lubricants on the sheet every time? If for instance, the accuracy of the equipment is 85%, then the deviation of the lubricant will be in the range of 0.85 to 1.15 g⁄m2 , and if the panel is very sensitive to friction, then it might show some problems. Therefore, it is critical to find a safe range for the amount of lubrication and making sure that the equipment sprays the lubricant in the given range.

Finding a ‘sweet spot’ for the lubrication amount where the panel does not produce a lot of surface defects and at the same time does not show a high thinning value depends on having accurate simulation tools, such as using the TriboForm Plug-In with AutoForm.

In considering the tribology system for the forming of AHSS there are three main points to consider, namely 1) the effect of friction and tribology on springback 2) forming AHSS generates higher temperatures, which again affects frictional behavior and 3) in forming of AHSS different tool materials are used which bring new effects upon the frictional behavior in forming and simulation. All three phenomena should be accounted for in the forming simulation, which can only be achieved by using advanced friction models.

Naturally AHSS has more springback when forming, e.g., automotive parts. Springback is heavily influenced by the frictional behavior which is set in sheet metal forming simulations. This is exactly why you should have an improved description of your frictional behavior in stamping simulations. This in turn leads to better springback prediction. The friction determines the amount of restraining in the part, and based upon this, the springback behavior is influenced. In addition, it is important to consider that in forming AHSS, usually higher contact pressures between the tools and sheet are observed, which is why friction becomes so important. This leads to temperature build up in the material, not seen in that order of magnitude for mild steels. A proper description of the temperature evolution, and the effect on the frictional behavior, is therefore important for simulating the forming of AHSS.

Furthermore, forming AHSS materials demands the use of tool steels, which are not normally used for medium strength steels. Instead of using tools made from cast iron now we must consider the tribological effects of tools made from a controlled amount of carbon mixed with chromium to achieve harder tools. Such tooling materials have an influence on the tribological properties as well. This is why during simulation set up the user has to account for this along with lubricant selection. A good friction model should account for all these dependencies in generating the friction models.
If you have an advanced friction model in your forming simulation, you’ll introduce a realistic tribology system in your sheet metal forming simulation. Subsequently, you’ll achieve a more accurate prediction of splitting, wrinkling, thinning and springback, which are all linked to the friction model you are using.

 

Dr. Johan Hol, Development Manager, TriboForm

Dr. Ir. Johan Hol obtained his PHD in the field of tribology in sheet metal forming. In 2013 he co-founded the company TriboForm Engineering, a software company providing consultancy services and software solutions in the field of virtual design and tribological modelling.

After joining the AutoForm Group in 2016, Dr. Hol became the Development Manager of TriboForm and is responsible for the development of TriboForm’s software products and technical support in the global market.

 

Advanced High-Strength Steel Repairability

Advanced High-Strength Steel Repairability

Contributed by David W. Anderson, Senior Director, Automotive Market and Long Products Program,                                   Steel Market Development Institute, USA

Introduction

The introduction of Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS) to light vehicle body structure applications poses a significant challenge to organizations involved in vehicle repair. AHSS grades are typically produced by non-traditional thermal cycles and contain microstructural constituents whose mechanical properties can be altered by exposure to elevated temperatures. This temperature sensitivity can alter the mechanical behavior during repair welding or flame straightening, thus seriously affecting the structural performance of the AHSS components after the repair.
The Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), with our automotive partners – FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company – and I-CAR, have completed studies examining the mechanical behavior of various AHSS products after exposure to typical repair arc welding and flame straightening temperature cycles. Recommended practices for repairing components made of these materials were also developed. The studies evaluated many of the AHSS grades being applied and built into vehicle structures today.

AHSS Thermal Evaluation

Several steel grades were evaluated for their sensitivity to thermal exposure taking place during heating to soften the material for straightening, typically by flame. The test results, conclusions and recommendations contained herein are the consensus views of the team members.
A time-temperature test matrix was developed to represent the various thermal conditions encountered during repair welding and flame straightening as shown in Table 1. Individual steel performance result discussions are based on this test matrix and discussed by grade category and specific type.

Table 1: Time-Temperature Test Matrix.

Steel Performance

Conventional Steels

Interstitial free (IF) and high strength low alloy (HSLA) steels are conventional steel products which are essentially a single phase ferrite microstructure and obtain their strength by the addition of chemical elements. These steels have been used in body structures and closures for many years and are well-known to be repairable without substantial performance degradation by arc welding and flame straightening. For repair processes, this means conventional steels can be subjected to heat during repair with the finished repaired component having mechanical properties greater than the properties of the as-received steel. However, it is recommended heating is kept below 750 degrees Celsius to ensure no degradation in properties (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Ultimate tensile strength of Grade 4 IF and HSLA 340 steel after exposure to simulated repair thermal cycles.

Advanced High-Strength Steels

Dual Phase (DP) Steel

DP steels range in strength from 500 MPa to 1200 MPa and obtain their properties from the introduction of a martensitic phase into the ferrite microstructure. The ferrite phase provides formability, while the martensitic phase provides the improved strength. This category of steel grades obtains its microstructure, and thus its mechanical properties through a combination of alloying elements and thermomechanical processing. The processing involves some holding time at elevated temperatures and cooling at specific rates.

Two grades of DP steel were tested, DP 600 and DP 780. The number indicates the ultimate tensile strength (UTS) level of the material in MPa and is the common way to name these grades. UTS for both grades decreases with elevated temperature at a much faster rate than for conventional steels and is illustrated by DP 600 in Figure 2. At temperatures above 650 degrees Celsius the strength suddenly increases then upon additional heating decreases. This behavior is a result of changing the microstructure created during the original thermomechanical processing of the material. Once the microstructure is changed, it is very difficult to return it to its original state in a repair shop environment. Therefore, it is not recommended to subject DP steels to any kind of elevated temperature process for straightening or removing dents. The recommended repair procedure is to remove and replace the DP component. OEM repair guidelines and procedures should be referenced for approved cut and weld lines for replacement.

Figure 2: Ultimate tensile strength of advanced high-strength steels after exposure to simulated repair thermal cycles.

Transformation Induced Plasticity (TRIP) Steels

TRIP steels have a similar range of strength as DP steels, 500 MPa to 1200 MPa, while providing improved formability. The improved formability is obtained with the introduction of additional phases of austenite and bainite into the microstructure. These phases improve the work hardening properties of steel and provide additional energy absorption characteristics. TRIP steel microstructures are obtained in a similar manner as DP steels, and therefore have similar behaviors when heating.

TRIP 600 and 780 were evaluated in the studies and confirmed the expected results as demonstrated by TRIP 600 in Figure 2. Heating during repair of TRIP steel will also adversely affect their mechanical properties and thus the performance of the as repaired component may be compromised. OEM recommended repair procedures are similar to DP steels.

Martensitic Steel (MS)

MS steels typically have a microstructure of 100 percent martensite and have tensile properties greater than 980 MPa. Martensite is the strongest microstructural phase in steel and is obtained by alloying and rapid controlled cooling. This grade is used in areas where exceptional strength and anti-intrusion are needed, including such applications as the A-pillars, B-pillars, rockers and rails.
The effect of heat on MS 1300 is shown in Figure 2. Like other AHSS, it is adversely affected by heat and the performance of the as repaired component may be compromised. Thus, heat should be used only as outlined in OEM repair procedures.

Summary

The steel industry, working closely with automotive OEMs and the repair community, have developed and validated repair procedures applicable to the new AHSS used in today’s vehicles. Each OEM has taken the results from the AHSS repairability studies and developed their own repair guidelines.

The steel industry continues to develop AHSS grades with strength levels at and above 1000 MPa. These microstructures contain martensite and will be affected by heat exposure during repair as shown in previous studies. Collaborative studies will continue to update repair procedures for higher strength AHSS, including DP, MS and Press Hardened grades, and new 3rd Gen. AHSS as they are introduced.

 


 

David W. Anderson, Senior Director
Automotive Market and
Long Products Program
Steel Market Development Institute, USA

With more than 30 years of experience, David Anderson serves as senior director, Automotive Technical Panel and Long Products Program for the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a position he has held since January 2012. In this position, he is responsible for leveraging his expertise to support SMDI’s Automotive Applications Council’s (AAC) – a consortium of major North American steel producers – expansion into chassis and powertrain programs, as well as serving as the liaison between the AAC and its partner organizations. In addition, he is responsible for coordinating efforts to grow steel long products in the North American automotive /

 

Five Things To Look for in an Automotive LCA

Five Things To Look for in an Automotive LCA

Figure 1: Vehicle LCA encompasses all phases of the product cycle, from raw material extraction to end of life recycling and disposal.

Vehicle LCA encompasses all phases of the product cycle, from raw material extraction to end of life recycling and disposal.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) continues to gain traction as the preferred method for assessing the environmental impacts of a product, and we are seeing more and more automotive LCA studies, and claims or conclusions based on LCA, being published. Here are five things to look for in an automotive LCA study. This is not an exhaustive list – there are many more things that need to be considered when conducting an LCA (the international standard that lays out requirements and guidelines for LCA, ISO 14044, lists 14). For a detailed look at LCA, I recommend Environmental Life Cycle Assessment, an excellent textbook published by the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA).

1. Is the study comparing “apples to apples”?

This can sometimes be a bit of a challenge in an automotive LCA, as cars are complex products made up of many systems and sub-systems, with supply chains that reach around the world. It is easy to lose sight of apparently subtle differences.

One such difference arises in material comparisons of an existing product and one at the design stage. Before making choices about which material has the lower impact, it is important to decide if this is a fair comparison. Have both designs been fully optimized? Does the theoretical design meet all the requirements (e.g. crash, NVH) of an existing design that has gone through all the additional steps necessary to get to production?
Functional equivalence is another important factor to consider. For example, it would be inappropriate to compare the “body” of a vehicle with a body-on-frame design with the “body” of a vehicle with a unibody design. Though both systems are casually referred to as the “body”, their functional requirements are very different. Similarly, when comparing an assembly of stamped parts to a single casting, it is important to include all the stamped parts that are required to meet the same functional performance as the cast part.

2. Has the best and most appropriate data been used?

As with any assessment tool, data is key, and there are many factors that can help determine which is the most appropriate to be used in a particular study. There are ten of these factors listed in ISO 14044, but I will only talk about three of them here. If you want more detail, Guidance on Data Quality Assessment for Life Cycle Inventory Data, published by USEPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory is a great resource.

Temporal scope – the temporal scope of the data describes when the data was collected, as well as the time period to which the data applies. An often-used rule of thumb is that the data used for the study should be no more than five years old. The goal is to use either data that reflects the time period when the product under study was actually produced or the most recent data that captures the current state of the art (these may of course be the same thing).

Geographical scope – the geographical scope of the data describes the location to which the data applies. This is critical, as the same process may have a very different impact profile in different locations. For example, primary aluminium made largely using electricity from hydropower in Canada will have a much different impact from primary aluminium made in China, where the electricity used comes almost entirely from coal. With automakers increasingly developing global platforms (i.e. using the same parts all over the world, as often as possible), it is important to consider how the results of an LCA might change if a product is produced in a region other than the one studied. The same is true when considering where a product is used. For example, the differences in electricity generation in Canada and China will greatly affect the impact of charging an electric vehicle.

Technological scope – the technological scope of the data describes the technology to which the data applies. Often the same product can be made from a variety of production pathways. Much like production in different regions, production via different pathways can result in much different impacts. An example of this is primary magnesium production. Magnesium produced via the Pidgeon process (a declining, but still-used method) can have a global warming impact more than 1.5 times higher than magnesium produced via the electrolytic method.

3. How sensitive are the results to changes in the choices made?

Because LCA involves choices about things like data and functional requirements (as well as a host of other parameter choices), it is important to understand what happens to the results if different choices are made or underlying conditions change. Inclusion of a sensitivity analysis of this kind allows us to evaluate the results of an LCA and look for areas that might require further study, perhaps by looking for more precise data. It could also affect decisions we might make based on the results. If the results of a study are very sensitive to the location in which the materials are made, we want to evaluate this if we are considering making the product in many different places.

4. What is the fundamental approach taken?

ISO 14040, which lays out the principles and framework for LCA, describes two fundamental approaches to LCA:

  1.  one which assigns elementary flows and potential environmental impacts to a specific product system typically as an account of the history of the product, and
  2. one which studies the environmental consequences of possible (future) changes between alternative product systems.

It is important to consider which approach was used, and what the chosen approach means in terms of interpreting the results. In a very basic sense, the key lies in the words “history” and “future”. A study that considers the historical impact of a product (i.e. the impact of any product that has already been made) tells us about the impact of that particular product, but may be of limited use in making decisions about what the impact of that same product may be in the future. Studies of the potential future impact of a product, while necessary for decision making, are fraught with all the perils of predicting the future. Both approaches are valuable, and it is important to understand which approach was taken in order to make decisions about how to use the results of the study. The ILCD Handbook: General guide for Life Cycle Assessment, published by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, provides guidance on when to use each approach in assessing the technological representativeness of LCI data.

5. How broadly can I apply the results?

It is often tempting to apply the results of a study more broadly than is justified. Given all the factors listed above (as well as the many others not included), it is critical that careful consideration be given when making decisions based on the results of automotive LCA studies in order to make sure that the scope of the study is in alignment with the scope of the decision. It is clearly inappropriate to make global decisions based on local studies, or to make future decisions based solely on past conditions. LCA is a valuable, well-developed tool for assessing environmental impacts, but we must be careful to use it appropriately.

The UCSB Automotive Energy and GHG Model, developed on behalf of WorldAutoSteel, is a publicly available, peer-reviewed tool for the assessment of automotive emissions on a life cycle basis. Version 5 of the UCSB Model can be downloaded for free at www.worldautosteel.org.  At the UCSB Model page, you’ll find a video workshop at the end featuring Russ Balzer explaining the contents of the Model. A user guide is also available for download.

Does the subject of Life Cycle Assessment confuse you or would you like to learn more?  There is a great free online course at our sister organization steeluniversity, “Introduction to LCA”, taught by Dr. Matthias Finkbeiner, head of the department of Sustainability Engineering at Technical University of Berlin, who introduces LCA methodology to analyse the environmental burdens of product and service systems.  The course is fun and interactive, and you can finish it at your own pace.

Russ Balzer, LCACP, Technical Director, WorldAutoSteel and Phoenix Group

Russ Balzer is the LCA Technical Director at WorldAutoSteel and Phoenix Group. As Technical Director, Russ manages a variety of engineering projects, and has tactical and strategic responsibilities in WorldAutoSteel’s efforts to use and promote Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Russ recently achieved LCACP certification and was recognized for his work in the field of LCA with the ACLCA’s Rising Star Award.