Lightweighting might be the focus of major hype right now, but its downstream impact promises to be truly exciting, writes Stephen Holmes, who’s admiring some lattices before they get hidden from public view
Lightweighting is currently a sexy engineering topic, already mentioned several times in the pages of this issue. That’s because designers have always looked to use less material and make products lighter — but the combination of today’s optimisation technology and additive manufacturing has thrown this mission into overdrive. Everything must be lighter, just like everything had to be smaller in the 1990s, curvier in the 2000s and thinner in the 2010s.
In fact, ‘topology optimisation’ and ‘lattice infills’ are now terms you might find in a review of a consumer product, in much the same way as its author coos over composites, user interfaces and connectivity. Lattices are now much-hyped features of shoes, saddles and car seats.
Some of the less flashy uses of lightweighting are actually the most impressive and it’s exciting to think of the impact they will have
With their almost-but-not-quite organic forms, parts that are built using simulation-driven algorithms are visually so outside of the current norm that, whatever your thoughts on them in terms of styling, there’s no doubt they catch the eye.
But for me it’s all a bit ‘Dieter’ — a case of function over form. That’s why some of the less flashy uses of lightweighting are actually the most impressive, and it’s exciting to think of the impact they will have.
Lattices take the strain
Take, for instance, the case of Guhring’s drills, featured this month. Here, a lattice-filled design helps maintain the part strength, but the resulting weight loss has even greater impact downstream.
A lighter part puts less strain on the CNC machine on which it’s used, meaning faster machines operating at less stress. If this sort of tool body becomes commonplace, it will in turn have an impact on CNC machine makers, which could find that they are able to reduce the material needed to build machines, lowering costs.
One of my favourite recent uses of lightweighting is to be found at Ocado Engineering, the technology arm behind the UK online grocery fulfilment company.
Earlier this year, the company announced it had optimised the design of its latest 600 Series robot, using HP 3D printing to produce more than 300 of its parts. As a result, the robot is five times lighter, making it significantly faster at picking up your avocados and sourdough, and more cost-effective to manufacture and run than previous models.
The downstream effects are that the lighter robots make the planning of Ocado’s fulfilment sites easier. The lighter robots use less electricity, boosted by reduced refrigeration requirements, since faster robots move products around before they lose their chill. The gantries on which robots and stock move can be lighter too, meaning Ocado’s warehousing operations can move into a wider variety of buildings.
While the trickle-down of technology from Formula 1 cars to family hatchbacks is a slow one (aside from some dubious examples like BMW’s topology optimised boot hinges), agricultural and heavy machinery makers are ahead of the curve.
If it’s traditionally big, heavy and slow, then the performance benefits of lightweighting are much greater than on an already skinny supercar. And as long as they maintain the necessary strength to plough or shovel all day, then big lumps like earthmovers and tractors get payoffs that are measured in more than potatoes.
Hype and heydays
Soon this ability to cut weight using innovative algorithms and additive processes will lose its novelty. We’ve seen a similar change of image with 3D printing: in its 2014 heyday, we were promised we’d be 3D printing a spare kidney in time for the weekend on our kitchen tables by now.
But today, 3D printing is working away behind the scenes, helping manufacturers to build custom jigs and fixtures on their factory floors, saving them huge sums of money in the process, and slowly graduating to building end-use parts, as calculations around cost, efficiency, quality and assurance all begin to add up.
In a similar fashion, many of the great successes of lightweighting are likely to be hidden away from mainstream praise, all the while contributing to better products.
So, while many of us flinch when looking at optimised designs and naked lattices laid bare for all to see (and a nightmare to clean), we should probably be enjoying this odd period in the timeline of design.
Caption (image above): Lightweighting robots at Ocado is set to have a huge effect on productivity and energy efficiency (Credit: Ocado Engineering)