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Automotive Lightweighting as a Strategic Opportunity for India's Automotive Industry

03/02/2010 4:00 PM 3"270
Charles Fine, Chrysler Leaders for Manufacturing Professor; MIT Sloan School of Management; Richard Roth, Research Associate, Engineering Systems Division

Description: Suppose you could leapfrog 100 years of experience in the automotive industry and begin a new manufacturing epoch. The strategic change you would make is to lightweight the vehicle, observes Charles Fine. Although steel has been the material of choice for many automotive components since the dawn of the automotive age, there is evidence that a change to lightweight intensive materials would bring significant environmental and economic benefits.

Fine and his colleagues studied nascent automotive markets and advised India's auto industry on its strategic and niche advantages. India faces stiff competition from established automakers in Germany, the United States, Japan, and even China. These countries have mastered advanced aspects of vehicle technology, made improvements in the power train, and, in some cases, tackled low cost manufacturing. They do not leave India with many areas to carve out a niche. But, for vehicle lightweighting says Fine, "the field is still pretty wide open. You still cannot find a company that planted its stake in the ground and said we are going to be the ultra"lightweight company in the world. It is an open space. No one has nailed this down yet". He adds, " If this is such a great idea why aren't American companies doing this? They lack vision and will." In India, the automotive industry is just gearing up and there is a steep learning curve to produce lightweighting, but it is a long"lasting asset. India could also export vehicles to developed markets, since lightweighting will help meet fuel efficiency mandates (like CAFE standards) and reduce dependence on foreign petroleum. It is estimated that lightweight vehicles consume about 2/3 the fuel of conventional (steel) vehicles.

Fine recognizes that it will not easy to reinvent the automotive supply chain which has a sunk investment in steel. He says that individual firms do not have enough leverage and cannot road"map the necessary changes in the supply chain, so pre"production decisions must be advanced to the industry level. He finds a useful analogy from the semi"conductor industry in the United States. During the 1980s, twelve major semiconductor manufacturers formed the Sematech consortium. Their function was to coordinate the supply chain, and lay out the road" map for chip development. Before Sematech, each customer had a different technology. The consortium lowered the investment risk for process technology companies.

Rich Roth emphasizes that even with road" mapping there will be uncertainty and risk, as well as a lot of choices. "There are dozens and dozens of ways to lightweight," he says. His laboratory at MIT has been analyzing various options for materials choice and technology, and studying how to scale up for mass production. He notes that there is currently no infrastructure robust enough to supply lightweight vehicles. There are two broad classes of materials that could potentially be used for parts, assembly and corrosion protection-- light metals and composites. Among metals, strengthened steel has the most use today" but it does not fully solve all problems and it is expensive. Aluminum and magnesium are alternative metals, but the capacity is not always there for meeting the quality needs for automotive manufacturing. Among the composite materials, some come with past failures" some are expensive to source" and others, like carbon fiber, come with the need for huge investment but an unrealized market development.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Transportation@MIT

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