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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Assembling for Disassembly:
Alcoa, Honda Back Automotive Manufacturing Research at OSU

Aluminum company Alcoa is lending its support to a longstanding research partnership between Honda and Ohio State University that could innovate auto manufacturing.

Aluminum company Alcoa is lending its support to a longstanding research partnership between Honda and Ohio State University that could innovate auto manufacturing.

The nonproprietary research underway at OSU’s Institute for Materials Research could lead to lighter weight vehicles, but building a more sustainable car is about more than just fuel efficiency, said Glenn Daehn, a professor in OSU’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

While about one-third of American energy is used in homes and offices, and another third is used in transportation, the final third is consumed in industrial processes, Daehn said. Looking for more sustainable processes within that final third, Honda and OSU began years ago to study how to reduce the amount of energy used to apply paint to an automobile.

“Turns out, if you are a little smarter about how you control the temperature and humidity, you can pay massive energy benefits. This is the type of thing that is not very visible, but very, very powerful,” Daehn said.

Today, the University and Honda — with support from Alcoa — are working on ways to join different types of metals, allowing manufacturers to use lighter metals and therefore reduce the overall mass of a vehicle. Again, the benefit is not only a lighter weight vehicle but also reduced energy required to weld the metals together.

The research is led by Daehn and Anthony Luscher, who are studying how to use a decades-old process called high-velocity deformation to join different types of metal, allowing lighter metals to be used in vehicles.

“Possibly, if you do it right, you can make a vehicle that you can disassemble at the end of its life and then effectively recycle the components,” Daehn said. “Not only would you have a vehicle that burns less fuel, but it actually takes less energy to make it and when you are done with it, you can harvest those parts and actually get a great lifecycle of sustainability in the whole process.”

A little more than a year ago, the Alcoa Foundation began to support the long-standing partnership between OSU and Honda. Through the 25-year-old Honda Partnership, researchers at Ohio State’s College of Engineering have access to an endowment that generates $1.5 million a year for research into ways to make vehicles more sustainable, both in the manufacturing process and throughout the life of the car.

Alcoa’s commitment to this particular project is newer, but the company shares the partnership’s ideals to reduce vehicle mass, make more sustainable vehicles affordable and reduce distance in the supply chain, Daehn said.

Through its Advancing Sustainability Research program, the Alcoa Foundation has invested $4 million to support 10 research studies, including the work between Honda and OSU.

The research at OSU — like all the projects the ASR program is funding — is nonproprietary, meaning the industry as a whole can benefit as students, faculty and industry professionals work together to make processes more sustainable.

“By making it nonproprietary, it really opens up the doors and gives everybody the ability to collaborate without those restrictions or shackles that may go along with some proprietary conditions or not being able to disseminate freely the information across the parties,” said Mario Greco, the marketing director of Ground Transportation for Alcoa. “That is really one of the key elements of why this type of opportunity or relationship is so valuable to everybody, particularly to the students.”

Honda’s investment in research at OSU remains strong after a quarter of a century; the company installed a $1 million driving simulator at the university just this month to study ways to reduce distracted driving.

Honda also collaborates with OSU in the Mobility Innovation Exchange (MIX) program, which puts scientists and engineers from the auto manufacturer together with university faculty and students to work on projects that may give Honda a competitive advantage. The teams work in the MIX lab on Ohio State’s Engineering Campus or at the Honda campus in Raymond, Ohio, on innovations that Honda will own.

Every year, the researchers and president of OSU meet with the heads of research and manufacturing for Honda to review what the partnership has accomplished in the previous year and where its work will go in the coming year.

“This relationship is taken very seriously on both sides. It’s really a great example of an unusual public-private partnership,” Daehn said, and students who work in the Honda lab often go to work in a sustainability field, even if their employer is a different brand. “We are developing processes and all these processes give you a deeper tool box for smart people to go out and develop more sustainable products,” he added.

Honda continues to make strides in its efforts to increase the sustainability of its operations, including collaborating on a pilot project with IBM and PG&E to demonstrate electric vehicle and smart grid communication, and using green logistics to reduce the transportation requirements needed to support its North American production