TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Is there an auto assembly worker in the near future who is strong enough to form metal parts with his bare hands?
Handmade chassis parts are an actual concept for a future generation of low-volume vehicles, says Paul Venhovens, who holds the BMW Endowed Chair in Automotive Systems Integration at Clemson University.
The practice could save automakers tens of millions of dollars in manufacturing investments in stamping presses and part dies, says Venhovens, who joined Clemson's staff from BMW's research and development headquarters.
Venhovens unveiled an unofficial Mazda concept car at a reception Sunday night that was conceptualized and designed by Clemson graduate students and sponsored by Mazda Motor Corp. The concept is envisioned as a low-priced sporty model for younger buyers with room for cargo.
To keep its retail cost low, the car uses load-bearing aluminum parts that were hand-folded and assembled into structural body parts on the car. That technology is being proffered by Industrial Origami Inc., a company that recently relocated from San Francisco to Cleveland to be closer to industrial customers in the Midwest.
Industrial Origami has already made some headway in the U.S. appliance industry, says Gerry Corrigan, a former manager with PPG Industries and now CEO of the technology supplier. Corrigan said he has meetings scheduled this month with automotive companies in Detroit to discuss possible applications.
According to Corrigan, an assembly line would receive metal blanks that have had "smiles" imprinted onto them that determine how workers would fold the metal.
"They can only be folded a specific way," he says, "and no variation is possible."
The folded pieces are then assembled into the body of the car, not unlike assembling a do-it-yourself shelving unit.
"This would be ideal for low volumes," Corrigan says. "It is a disruptive technology intended to help manufacturers enter a market at a lower upfront investment. Metal fabrication hasn't really changed in a 100 years."