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Toyota and UBC to reinvent how wheels are made

After receiving more than $700,000, the Vancouver university and Japanese car-maker look to minimize cost and streamline wheel production


September 2, 2011
by Matt Powell

VANCOUVER—The University of British Columbia (UBC) and Toyota have teamed to develop new production processes for stronger, lighter and cheaper aluminum wheels after receiving federal funding of more than $700,000.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has awarded UBC and Toyota $727,000 from its Automotive Partnership Canada program to redefine the manufacturing process for water-cooled die casting.

Toyota will provide more than $1 million in cash, personnel, equipment and other resources for the project.

UBC and Toyota are planning to have the technology deployed by 2014 at the Canadian Autoparts Toyota Inc. (CAPTIN) manufacturing plant in Delta, B.C. The plant employs 250 people and turns out 1.7 million wheels a year.

“This isn’t about re-inventing the wheel, it’s about re-inventing the process to make the wheel to drive down manufacturing costs,” says Steve Cockcroft, a professor of materials engineering at UBC.

Daan Maijer, a professor and engineers at the school’s Department of Materials Engineering, says revamping the wheel manufacturing process is one that’s necessary for car-makers to maintain a competitive advantage.

“Making a great looking and high quality wheel has become increasingly expensive and difficult to achieve with the technology currently used,” he says.

He says there is an increasing number of foundries popping up overseas, where wheel-makers are making high-quality castings that are equally competitive, but are produced more economically than their Canadian counterparts.

Maijer says CAPTIN has been using water-cooled die-casting technology incrementally for more than 10 years. This new project will examine how the company can implement the technology seamlessly to revamp its production and reduce costs.

“We want to start over and make use of the technology available to the company the best way we can,” he says. “We’re taking a wholistic approach where we think its absolutely necessary to start from scratch.”

Aluminum wheels are considered one of the most challenging parts to make because of safety requirements and the need for extensive styling and finishing.

Using a water-cooled method for casting molten aluminum into a die creates a lighter but stronger product in less time.

CAPTIN is looking to refine the process to reduce cavities or pores that form within the metal, lowering costs to make and maintain the dies and minimizing excess aluminum.

“Even though our process provides a higher value to customers, it is not economical to proceed if we can’t bring the cost down,” says Yongning Wang, CAPTIN’s general manager.

UBC has been collaborating with CAPTIN, Toyota’s first investment in Canada, since the late 1990s to develop a computer model for optimizing the design of low-pressure die casting. That research resulted in Toyota transferring its die design operations from Japan to Delta in 2003.

By using sophisticated computer-aided design tools to understand the fundamental science happening in the casting process, the research team expects to rein in the water-cooled technique’s costs.

“Casting as a technology is very old, so you would think we would know precisely what is happening in a modern casting process. The fact is we don’t,” Cockcroft says. “It’s an exceedingly complex process involving the transport of heat and mass across a range of scales, from meters to a millionth of a meter.”