Sapa Extrusions opened a new R&D lab in Troy, MI, dedicated to the development of extruded aluminum solutions for the automotive industry. Sapa Technology Americas specifically provides research and development activities on projects requested by Sapa’s North America Technical Center, the company’s plant network, and corporate R&D. Presently, the lab employs 12 technical personnel, of which six have Ph.D. degrees in materials science and mechanical engineering. Key disciplines available at Sapa Technology Americas include: physical metallurgy and advanced metallography, finite element analysis (linear and non-linear), thermal analysis, corrosion and surface treatment technologies, joining technologies, and solidification and casting technology, including billet quality assessment.
During a tour of Sapa Technology Americas, Light Metal Age had an opportunity to speak with Dave Lukasak, Ph.D., who is director of Metallurgy and Research for Sapa North America. Lukasak is responsible for metallurgical practices and alloy development across Sapa’s 23 plants in the Americas. He has over 25 years of experience in the aluminum industry ranging from R&D to production management. His primary expertise lies within the physical metallurgy of aluminum alloys and understanding the effects of microstructure on mechanical and corrosion behavior. Specific areas of experience include alloy development for automotive, aerospace, and machining alloys, where Lukasak holds several patents.
Can you describe the basic operation of the Troy R&D laboratory and some of the projects being conducted?
Sapa Technology Americas is a satellite of Sapa’s global R&D organization. The lab is equipped to perform strategic research to aid in the development of building blocks for next generation alloys and processes. These processes include extrusion, casting, and downstream value-added processes. The downstream processes include forming, machining, functional component testing, and innovative joining processes such as friction stir welding (FSW). Sapa has grown the organization to 12 professionals over the last few months in an effort to create an industry leading technical team that addresses the challenges and opportunities of the aluminum extrusion industry.
How does this laboratory network with other Sapa foreign and domestic laboratories? How does it network with Sapa extrusion plants on projects?
A core value of Sapa is One Company, which means that we will work collectively with our colleagues to find the best, most cost effective solutions. One of Sapa’s primary strengths is the technical expertise of its people and, as such, ensuring effective collaboration on projects is key to our ability to innovate. The Sapa Technology team has close relationships between our R&D laboratories, as well as with our teams of operational experts in Europe, North America, and Asia.
What OEM customers do you work with on automotive R&D projects?
Sapa’s customer base in automotive continues to expand and includes most OEMs and many Tier 1 suppliers to the automotive market. Sapa is a global company, so the customer base includes OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers in North America, Europe, and Asia. We work on aluminum extrusion applications for model years up to 2025.
In the webinar presentation you will be making to the SAE, you indicated the types of extrusion alloys Sapa has developed for particular energy absorption applications. Can you elaborate?
There are several safety critical applications in which energy absorption is a critical aspect of automotive design. In these cases, the 6xxx series alloys and processing paths are designed to optimize the aluminum alloy microstructure to promote predictable high energy deformation at high strength levels. An alloy at the same strength level, which is prone to cracking, is incapable of achieving the same high level of predictable energy absorption compared to these alloys.
Do you use modeling to optimize extrusion shape relative to forming and crash performance?
Dynamic finite element modeling is a key initiative for Sapa. Being able to predict changes in dimensions and capability is key to the successful implementation of new aluminum solutions as it can reduce development time. It is used successfully today for optimizing weight savings as well as ensuring that material is in the right place for the application. For example, if a design is stiffness critical, then ensuring that the profile geometry is optimized in the correct locations can result in further lightweighting opportunities in other areas of the structure.
Do you think there is a future for 7xxx alloy extrusions in automotive?
Sapa continues to develop higher strength aluminum solutions. The company has conducted considerable research with 7xxx alloys and has developed very high strengths, but given the production difficulties these alloys are not being offered commercially. Our focus continues to be towards high strength as demanded by our customers and using 6xxx alloys to achieve this is our primary focus. Should our efforts discover opportunities to produce 7xxx alloys more cost effectively, then Sapa’s view of this alloy system could change.
Your lab has some state-of-the-art metallurgical and mechanical testing equipment. What do you anticipate you will need in the future to conduct your work?
When you consider our R&D resources across the globe, it is clear that Sapa has significant capabilities, which are further extended through strategic partnerships with international research universities. In light of the total capabilities at our disposal, we have not identified a need to expand at present. Of course, Sapa will monitor any changes required to innovate based on aluminum extrusion R&D needs.
Our test capabilities are already world class in regard to metallography and mechanical testing. With our scanning electron microscope, microstructural features critical to our metallurgical analyses can be identified and characterized.
Can you describe some of the work you are doing using the Haas machining center relative to machinability and FSW?
Prototyping is a key effort. Through prototyping it is possible for us to work directly on a customer application and demonstrate manufacturing feasibility, as well as functional testing of the prototypes. This can include the use of joining techniques such as FSW. In this, it is possible to characterize the FSW and develop enhanced techniques for manufacturing.
Can you summarize the advantages of aluminum body structures in internal combustion and electric powered vehicles? What is the future for extrusions in automotive vehicles?
Aluminum alloys offer the most cost effective light weighting solution, regardless of the selected powertrain in a vehicle. The recent DuPont Automotive/WardsAuto study (“How Automotive Engineers Plan to Meet Looming CAFE Standards,” August 2015) shows that automotive engineers overwhelmingly agree with this statement. Also, the advantages of recycling aluminum alloys compared to carbon reinforced composites are well recognized as an advantage.
The future for aluminum in automotive applications is very bright and exciting. Sapa’s drive for innovation is a key strategy for the future and our Troy R&D lab will continue to focus on ways to increase the utilization of aluminum extrusions in the automotive industry.