Lightweight materials randd facility showcased in Detroit

Larry Brown, executive director of Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, stands inside a Comau LLC robotic-welding cell inside the lightweight metals research and testing facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

DETROIT — A $50 million r&d operation for testing and commercializing lightweight metals and composite materials is being showcased in Detroit during this week’s auto show. 

Lightweight Innovations For Tomorrow (LIFT) and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is a combined federally designated testing and training facility on Rosa Parks Boulevard that opened in October after years of development.

The 100,000-square-foot building in a former Mexican Industries Inc. auto parts plant is billed as neutral site where automakers, aerospace companies, shipbuilders, tier-one suppliers and academic researchers can test metals and composite materials in a pre-competitive or proprietary setting. 

The research center is located less than two miles from Cobo Center, where Detroit’s annual auto show will attract thousands of journalists, auto executives, suppliers and industry experts to town this week.

There are 14 federally designated manufacturing institutes in the country that were set up under the Obama administration, but the Detroit facility is the only place where there’s testing of both lighter-weight metals and composite materials, said Larry Brown, executive director of LIFT.

“There’s no other place in the country with this type of capability, looking at lightweight applied R&D on a full-scale basis,” Brown said.

LIFT and IACMI share the building, with different types of machines spread across a shop floor that serve member companies from different industries and materials being tested and developed through both pre-competitive R&D and proprietary projects.

{{title}}

{{abstract}}
Read more >

{{/content}}

“It’s really to prove out the technology so they have the validation of the technology and they have the requisite business case — now they can make the investments for a production facility,” said Ray Boeman, a composite materials professor at Michigan State University, which manages the IACMI scale-up portion of the facility.

The $50 million spent renovating and outfitting the facility — $15 million of which came from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. — with testing and production machines, some of which are on loan from equipment manufacturers to serve as a showcase of their products to OEMs and parts suppliers.

Comau LLC, an Italian automation subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has placed a robotic-welding lab inside the LIFT side of the building that can be used for testing flexible welds.

“We really see it as an important part of our development moving forward,” said Martin Kinsella, a director at Comau, which has an innovation center near Detroit in Southfield, Mich.

‘Strategically very important’

Kinsella, a LIFT board member, said the location of the manufacturing institute in Detroit “was strategically very important” to bring multiple industries under one roof.

“It covers all sectors — aerospace, automotive, rail, navy, military,” Kinsella said. “We actually kind of intentionally reinforced it’s not just an automotive institute.”

Manufacturers and suppliers also can use the facility to train workers on using a compression molding press or an injection-molding machine.

“They just don’t have the resources to have that kind of press for development purposes — they have it production, but they don’t want to break into production,” said Boeman, who also is associate director of vehicle technology for IACMI. “So they come here to do that.”

With a focus on lightweighting composite materials to shed pounds from cars, IACMI’s members include FCA, Volkswagen Group of America Inc., Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor North America Inc. and General Motors.

VW/Audi role

Last week, Volkswagen became the first OEM to officially join the metals-focused LIFT institute, creating the potential for using both sides of the testing facility.

VW’s Audi unit is partnering with Lockheed Martin and Carpenter Technologies on developing lighter gears and gear components, said Roman Landes, lead engineer for materials for steel and specialty alloys at Audi.

The luxury brand chose to partner with the American companies on the project because of the engineering expertise in metro Detroit’s auto sector, Landes said.

“This for us is a very unique opportunity because we have not been involved in such a manner in the U.S. with developing R&D stuff,” Landes told Crain’s Detroit Business in a phone interview from Germany. “This is fairly new, and we’re looking forward to this experience now.”

“And we want to continue on developing partnerships with the U.S. by using this platform of LIFT in the future,” Landes added.

IACMI is planning to host its bi-annual meeting with members Tuesday through Thursday this week, coinciding with the auto show’s industry preview days. LIFT and IACMI officials will give public tours of the facility and research machines Thursday, with shuttles running from Cobo Center and the DoubleTree Dearborn hotel. Tickets can be reserved online on Eventbrite.com.