It was apparent at the recent Great Designs in Steel seminar that steel plans on stealing a page or two from the plastics’ playbook in the key automotive battleground. Steel has several advantages to start with. The manufacturing infrastructure to make steel parts exists, and in fact represents a significant capital investment. Steel also has a strong recycling track record (to say nothing of performance). It seems intuitive that the high gas prices will kick start already existing efforts to reduce weight of cars. But not so fast. New grades of steel reduce weight, and also play into the trend to boost safety performance, particularly for the sides and rear of vehicles. For example an ultra high strength steel (boron-alloyed 22 MnB5) cuts 2 kg for a side crash panel in BMW’s new X6 Sports Activity Coupe. The seven-passenger Acura MDX body structure contains 56 percent high-strength steels, including several new advanced grades. It may surprise some, but some of these new grades are significantly more formable than your father’s steel, allowing creation of complex shapes previously only possible with plastic.
A new compression molding compound material combines the light weight, strength, and rigidity of carbon fibers with the flexibility and lower cost of glass materials in a composite compatible with automotive production.
Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. Some of Germany-based igus's bearings are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. The research robot version is now being used in corporate R&D departments as a design platform.
End-production using 3D printing, including objects made of multiple materials in one pass, is getting closer to reality as we saw on the exhibit floor at the recent Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show.