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Aluminum

Altered perception

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Profile Academy attendees develop a deep understanding of the principles of aluminum material, production and market application technology.

Aluminum extrusions go beyond one type of alloy

It used to be that if you wanted to manufacture some of the structural components for a car you had to justify your reasons for using aluminum over steel. That process has changed, especially in the last two years, says Matthias Kapp, automotive engineer manager for Sapa Extrusions, headquartered in Rosemont, Illinois. “The trends we’re seeing in the U.S. are that the process is reversed. Now if you want to make something from steel you have to prove why.”

The paradigm shift lies in whether the weight penalty is small enough and the payoff large enough. No matter what, anytime an engineer or designer looks at components of a vehicle, the first question they ask is if it is the most lightweight version it can be without sacrificing strength and performance. 

“A lot of components are now made from aluminum sheet, like outside body closures,” he says. “It’s very much a trend going from having to choose steel versus aluminum to instead cherry picking what the best solution is based on what the part is for. And in a lot of cases, aluminum is the better weight-saving and high-functionality solution.”

It is this steady upswing in aluminum usage that is moving aluminum fabrication technology forward. The ability to fabricate its own stock or custom extruded aluminum shapes has allowed Sapa to offer customers cutting, bending and punching as well as complex machining operations and welding. “Our friction stir welding ability is being leveraged in a number of interesting ways,” says Peter Hedman, director of the North American Technical Center at Sapa Extrusions North America. 

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Profile Academy attendees develop a deep understanding of the principles of aluminum material, production and market application technology.

Beyond stock

Sapa’s engineers work with customers to develop ideal extrusion shapes in addition to providing the fabrication steps that increase the effectiveness of the final part, says Hedman. “Many times we can suggest extrusion designs and fabrication that eliminate other parts or dramatically simplify the downstream manufacturing process for our customers.”

Based on a customer’s knowledge of finished components, Sapa engineers and designers brainstorm to come up with the ideal profile, says Kapp. Is it the body they want to make lighter? Where can weight be reduced? Customers want a method to manufacture parts that is more efficient than using traditional castings such as for body mounts and engine mounts, “but don’t know how.”

The Profile Academy at Sapa focuses on breaking down the custom aluminum extrusion process. “It’s not always well understood by customers who are used to working with stock metal shapes,” Hedman explains. “The idea that we can design the metal shape and make it optimal for further fabrication is new to many of our customers.

“Our Profile Academy gives them one-on-one time with our team to learn about extrusion design as well as the fabrication services we offer,” he continues. “The combination of custom extrusion design and robust fabrication offerings creates tremendous value for customers.”

Tackling manufacturing challenges are among the reasons participants find value in Sapa’s Profile Academy. According to Hedman, customers are asking for more value-added design and fabrication services. “It’s exciting for us to see customers learn about extrusions in a Profile Academy, then come back to us with new ideas about their products.”

Kapp believes the ability to work with different shapes means manufacturing processes are not limited to round or square extrusions. This expands the prospects for automotive applications. “The eye opener for many of our customers is that we can handle more than one wall thickness when working with aluminum extrusions,” Kapp says. “These extrusions can have internal stiffeners that are useful when trying to make components more lightweight.”

Often, when a company is just starting with a new product or design, they’ll use commercially available standard shapes to make their first products, says Hedman. Using a custom profile opens up possibilities beyond square tubes, standard angles, bar stock and rod stock. “The customer can integrate features into the shape that they wouldn’t normally have, such as screw bosses, snap-fits, aesthetic features, features for wire management or PCB board mounting in electronics, optimized structural shapes/webbing, among others,” Hedman says.

Aluminum extrusions don’t revolve around one type of material or alloy, Kapp adds. “There are many high-strength alloys depending on the design parameters you might have, resulting in going from 6061 to a better extrudable 6005A or a higher strength 6082,” he explains. 

In one instance, Sapa was able to cut costs on a customer’s airbag canister mounting bracket by designing the extrusion for a fabrication clenching method. The single-clenching process replaced the need for the original two rivet attachments, the customer found.

FFJ 1215 aluminum image2

Aluminum extrusions don’t revolve around one material or alloy. There are many high-strength alloys depending on the design parameters.

Joint process

The Profile Academy opened in 2008 in the U.S. with the first automotive-specific academy in 2013. The academy is open to anyone interested in learning about specific extrusion processes but Sapa finds that companies often request a company-specific course geared toward that company’s particular needs. 

Friction stir welding allows Sapa to weld using only the parent material, resulting in strong welds with properties nearly identical to the original material. “Some might not need to learn more about friction stir welding or they want to learn more about newer alloys and design,” explains Kapp. “We’ll conduct one- to two-day workshops with two- to three-hour sessions where we brainstorm designs to figure out what issues they might run into and how they might save money.”

Heman notes that Sapa is seeing friction stir welding used frequently for creating large structural aluminum panels, as well as for cooling applications where preserving the thermal conduction of welded aluminum is key. 

Other fabrication methods Sapa teaches include long-length fabrication; Sapa invested in several new Elumatec and Emmegi machines, which enable the extruder to provide long-length (up to 30 ft. in some cases) products that go into CNC fabrication. “This is desirable for our commercial building and construction customers and those in commercial transportation,” says Hedman. 

“Stretch-bending, which are highly accurate bends, are frequently used for bumper beams, cab components in automotive and Class 8 vehicles. Flow-drilling, while not revolutionary, is a neat way to eliminate the need for riv-nuts and additional fasteners,” he says. 

With 13 completed sessions in 2015, Sapa expects the roughly once-a-month course to continue to be popular among customer groups going forward.

The Profile Academy is being treated as a training tool for some companies when taking on new hires. “We’ll see repeat customers sending people to check out our course. A lot of these OEMs hire more people in a week than I can host in a Profile Academy session,” explains Kapp. “So we’re able to bring their people that haven’t worked much with extrusions up to speed through follow-up academy session requests.” FFJ

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