DETROIT -- As fuel economy standards grow more stringent, automakers are turning to aluminum and other lightweight materials and more complex manufacturing methods to meet their goals. And they have turned to Comau Inc., a subsidiary of Fiat S.p.A., to make their designs buildable.
Comau builds the robots and assembly lines that make many of today's technologically advanced vehicles possible. It built the lines to assemble the aluminum body of the upcoming 2015 Ford F-150 pickup.
Martin Kinsella, 49, is director of advanced materials and process technologies with Comau and has directed many of the company's most advanced projects. He spoke with Staff Reporter Larry P. Vellequette last month at the company's technology center in suburban Detroit.
Q: Are automakers fully prepared for the 2017 and 2025 corporate average fuel economy standards?
A: I think everyone recognizes them, because it's great when a government makes decisions. I think there are a lot of calculations going on in the background among the OEMs, volumes on vehicles with high mpg, low mpg, etc.
They're definitely being recognized, and I think nearly every OEM is working on the target. I think every main OEM has maybe not a published plan, but there is a pathway to get to that program.
To get to the 54.5 mpg CAFE goal in the 2025 model year, is there one path that all automakers will merge onto, or are there different routes?
I think the OEMs are talking and driving towards a global approach so they'll get a common footprint in terms of underbody. Off this underbody, we're going to build five models. Ten or 20 years ago, it was five underbodies; it was 10 different derivatives on each of those five underbodies. But now, everybody's trying to drive toward, "Let's use this and try to kind of build it up, make it scalable, so everything isn't a unique model."
And certain OEMs are joining joint ventures: "I'll produce your underbody; you produce my complete assembly."
Where is the best work being done to meet CAFE standards, on the supplier side or automaker side?
I think it's the combination. There's a lot more discussion and openness in terms of processes, in terms of knowledge transfer. I don't think any one resource, whether it's an OEM, or academia, or a supplier, will have a solution that fits all. It will be multimaterials with multijoints, and there's going to be such a wealth of materials and joints that one source won't be able to fit all.
You could say that aluminum, for example, is a good solution for a lightweighting material, but at the same time, the steel industry hasn't stopped. They're still producing and developing super-high-strength steels, so there's still going to be that combination of materials coming together.
I think that we all know that we need to get there, so let's work together to get there. There are very few that are actually being very narrow-minded and kind of "go their own route" because they know that if something's being developed over there, why waste time to develop the same thing over here to learn the same thing that they're learning?
I think there should be an area or a process where there is this sharing across the industry, not just in the U.S. but globally, so you're not wasting time and money. If we've developed something here that's very, very good, let's share it. Let's communicate it so it's available to people.
What will Comau be working on 15 or 20 years down the road?
Hopefully, we'll all have achieved our CAFE standards, so the next target will be set in terms of transportation technology, materials that are -- maybe in the same way that 10 or 15 years ago, carbon fiber was only used in Formula One racing cars -- coming into medium- and low-volume manufacturing. Graphene is a good example.
I also think we will have gotten to a time where we'll be simultaneously conceptualizing facilities and manufacturing and product development.