Manufacturing AUTOMATION: How is the instability in the auto industry affecting auto-related research projects in Canada?
Peter Frise: To a large extent, it isn't. The kinds of work we do are much longer term than the direct effects of a given business cycle. Now, having said that, this is a pretty extraordinary business cycle. There has been a lot of concern expressed within the industry over what the future is going to look like and which players will be there. We work with the most forward-looking companies, and they're struggling, but they're confident of their future. They know that if they don't do this kind of work now, they won't have a future.
MA: What breakthrough innovations is AUTO21 currently working on?
PF: We have quite a number of really exciting developments...We put a lot of our effort into making automotive components lighter and stronger. By making them lighter and stronger, you improve the safety of the car and enable it to use less energy at the same time. We've done a lot of work on light-metal casting like aluminum and magnesium. So, for instance, we have a group that works with Nemak of Canada, a large aluminum casting operation. Our work is credited with saving them roughly $100 million in their Canadian plant - in making it more competitive and producing higher quality products.
We've done a lot of work on advanced bio-based materials, which are lighter and use less petroleum...We've found a way to make plastic out of plants and other biomass; for instance, wood fibre and wood pulp. We can make plastic using less oil, so that decreases the overall carbon footprint of the process of manufacturing a car.
We've also done a lot of work on machine vision, which is where you use a machine to inspect the parts and make sure it's used correctly. One of the companies we've worked with is Van-Rob, based north of Toronto, [to develop] a new kind of machine vision system that helps inspect complicated stamped metal parts.
MA: What's coming in the future?
PF: The future is going to be very diverse. I think people who live and travel in cities will buy a different kind of car from people who travel longer distances in their cars. And so that's where you may see vehicles with different kinds of power trains - all electric vehicles would be quite useful in a city, maybe not so useful for a long distance across the country. The other thing we're always working on is worker safety, and we're trying to constantly improve the competitiveness of Canada's factories by making them safer for our workers...There's been a piece of software and a method developed called 3D Match, which enables us to measure the cumulative loads on a worker from doing a repetitive task. That enables the auto plant design people to develop the tasks that are on an assembly so that none of the workers are hurt.
MA: In the current economic situation, what opportunities are available to the automotive research community?
PF: Everybody knows that the business cycle will turn and sales will increase again some time in the next year or two, and at that point all of the different concepts we've been working on will be very useful in helping companies come out with new products.
Q&A with AUTO21's Peter Frise
The unstable automotive industry and business cycle are far from damaging research efforts. In fact, they may be encouraging them. Manufacturing AUTOMATION sat down with AUTO21's CEO and scientific director, Peter Frise, to discuss the industry outlook and upcoming innovations. Click here to read more.
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