Tesla May Have Perfected One-Piece Casting Technology

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Reuters appears to have wonderful sources deep inside Tesla. In a report dated September 14, 2023, it says no fewer than 5 folks have instructed it the corporate is getting near its purpose of casting the underbody of its vehicles in a single piece. Die casting is principally a reasonably easy course of. Create a mould, fill it with molten steel, let it cool, take away the mould, and voila! Prompt automobile. It really works nicely if you’re making Tinkertoys or Matchbox vehicles, however its extraordinarily troublesome in the event you attempt to use it to make full dimension autos.

Conestoga wagons had been constructed on high of frames product of timber. Early vehicles additionally used picket frames. When Henry Ford created the primary meeting line, the norm was to construct autos on a ladder body — two iron rails tied along with cross items. The primary unibody manufacturing automobile was the Citroen Traction Avant in 1934, adopted by the Chrysler Airflow the next 12 months.

Unibody vehicles don’t have any body beneath them. As a substitute, the steel physique is formed and shaped in such a method that it could assist the burden of the drivetrain and defend the occupants within the occasion of a crash. Starting within the Nineteen Fifties, automakers, spurred by manufacturing improvements pioneered by Japanese corporations like Honda and Toyota, switched to creating unibody vehicles with front-wheel drive.

All the powertrain, full with engine, transmission, differential, driveshafts, struts, and brakes, was put in on a separate platform that was lifted into place from under on the meeting line, quite than dropping the engine and transmission in from above the way in which it was executed for vehicles constructed on a body. The explanation for the change? Sooner meeting occasions which led to decrease unit prices of manufacturing.

For a very long time, unibody know-how was most well-liked for so-called financial system vehicles whereas ladder frames had been the selection for bigger sedans and wagons. There have been some hybrids combined in — vehicles with body rails in entrance bolted to a unibody passenger compartment. The Chevy Nova and MGB had been examples of this development, which didn’t final lengthy.

Tesla Pivots To Excessive Strain Casting

Tesla casting machine

Robots connected to the Tesla Giga Casting Machine at work (Supply: Tesla)

Tesla, which has made a behavior of disrupting how vehicles are made, began experimenting with excessive stress castings a number of years in the past. First it centered on making the rear structure. When it acquired that proper, it switched to creating the front structure. Now, in line with sources, Tesla is specializing in stress casting the entrance, middle, and rear sections multi function operation.

Why? As a result of conventional manufacturing methods use as much as 400 particular person stampings that then should be welded, bolted, screwed, or glued collectively to make a whole unibody construction. If Tesla can get this proper, its price of producing may very well be slashed by as much as 50 %. That, in flip, will put super stress on each different producer to reply or discover themselves unable to compete.

It goes with out saying that these producers are feeling battered from all sides as uppity unionized employees are banging on the gates and demanding a much bigger slice of no matter earnings are nonetheless being earned.

Terry Woychowsk, who labored at Basic Motors for 3 many years, is aware of a factor or two about manufacturing vehicles. He’s now the president of U.S. engineering firm Caresoft World. He tells Reuters that if Tesla manages to gigacast many of the underbody of an EV, it will additional disrupt the way in which vehicles are designed and manufactured. “It’s an enabler on steroids. It has an enormous implication for the trade, nevertheless it’s a really difficult activity. Castings are very onerous to do, particularly the larger and the extra difficult.”

Two of the sources mentioned Tesla’s new design and manufacturing methods imply the corporate may develop a automobile from the bottom up in 18 to 24 months, whereas most rivals can at the moment take anyplace from three to 4 years. A single giant body — combining the entrance and rear sections with the center underbody the place the battery is housed — may very well be used to fabricate a brand new, smaller electrical automobile that retails for round $25,000. Tesla was anticipated to determine whether or not to die solid a one-piece platform as quickly as this month, three of the sources mentioned.

Important Challenges Forward

One of many greatest challenges for Tesla in utilizing excessive stress castings is designing subframes which might be hole however have the inner ribs wanted to make them in a position to dissipate the forces that happen throughout crashes. The sources declare improvements by design and casting specialists in Britain, Germany, Japan, and america make use of 3D printing and industrial sand.

Making the molds wanted for prime stress casting of huge elements may be fairly costly and comes with appreciable dangers. As soon as a big steel check mould has been made, machining tweaks in the course of the design course of may price $100,000 a go, or redoing the mould altogether may come to $1.5 million, in line with one casting specialist. One other mentioned the entire design course of for a big steel mould would usually price about $4 million.

Many automakers have deemed the fee and the dangers to be too excessive, particularly since a design may want half a dozen or extra tweaks to attain an ideal die from the angle of noise and vibration, match and end, ergonomics and crashworthiness. However threat is one thing that seldom bothers Elon Musk, who was the primary to make rockets fly backwards.

Industrial Sand & 3D Printing

Tesla reportedly has turned to companies that make check molds out of business sand with 3D printers. Utilizing a digital design file, printers often called binder jets deposit a liquid binding agent onto a skinny layer of sand and regularly construct a mould, layer by layer, that may die solid molten alloys. In line with one supply, the price of the design validation course of with sand casting prices about 3% of doing the identical factor with a steel prototype.

Which means Tesla can tweak prototypes as many occasions as wanted, reprinting a brand new one in a matter of hours utilizing machines from corporations reminiscent of Desktop Metal and its ExOne unit. The design validation cycle utilizing sand casting solely takes to 2 to a few months, two of the sources mentioned, in contrast with anyplace from six months to a 12 months for a mould comprised of steel.

Regardless of that better flexibility, nevertheless, there was nonetheless another main hurdle to beat earlier than giant scale castings may very well be made efficiently. The aluminium alloys used to provide the castings behave in another way in molds product of sand than they do in molds product of steel. Early prototypes typically failed to satisfy Tesla’s specs.

The casting specialists overcame that by formulating particular alloys, advantageous tuning the molten alloy cooling course of, and developing with a post-production warmth remedy, three of the sources mentioned. As soon as Tesla is glad with the prototype sand mould, it could then put money into a last steel mould for mass manufacturing.

The sources mentioned Tesla’s upcoming small car/robotaxi has given it an ideal alternative to solid an EV platform in a single piece, primarily as a result of its underbody is easier. Small vehicles don’t have a giant “overhang” on the entrance and the again. “It’s like a ship in a method, a battery tray with small wings connected to each ends. That will make sense to do in a single piece,” one individual mentioned.

The sources claimed that Tesla nonetheless has to determine what sort of press to make use of if it decides to solid the underbody in a single piece. To fabricate giant physique elements shortly would require larger casting machines with clamping energy of 16,000 tons or extra. Such machines might be costly and will require bigger manufacturing unit buildings.

Presses with excessive clamping energy can not accommodate the 3D-printed sand cores wanted to make hole subframes. To resolve that downside, Tesla is utilizing a unique kind of press into which molten alloy may be injected slowly — a technique that tends to provide greater high quality castings and may accommodate the sand cores.

The issue is: that course of takes longer. “Tesla may nonetheless select excessive stress for productiveness, or they might select sluggish alloy injection for high quality and flexibility,” one of many folks mentioned. “It’s nonetheless a coin toss at this level.”

The Takeaway

No matter resolution Tesla makes, it should have implications that can ripple all through the auto trade worldwide. Tesla, regardless of vital value cuts, remains to be making electrical vehicles at a revenue — one thing legacy automakers are discovering extraordinarily troublesome to do.

If Tesla can trim its prices of producing considerably by utilizing excessive stress castings, these corporations might be underneath even better stress economically. It isn’t onerous to think about what occurred to Kodak and Nokia occurring to them. The place that would depart the world financial system and all the employees who at the moment make standard vehicles is anybody’s guess.


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