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Lightweighting – Concept, Benefits and Examples

Author: Oliver Skipper

This work by Ceram is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Lightweighting, both as a concept and as a practice, is becoming increasingly prevalent as lessons learned and benefits seen in one industry sector are passed to the next. Driven by the fundamental commercial principle of maximising profits, lightweighting can both help to reduce costs, both of materials and of energy, and can lead to increased sales by enhancing an organisation‟s environmental reputation; „lighter‟ products being seen as „greener‟. This white paper examines the concept of lightweighting “Rightweighting”, and discusses the benefits of taking such an approach and details how the concept has been realised in various industries.

Lightweighting – What Is It?
As a concept, lightweighting is easy to understand as, in essence, it is making a product lighter, through using lighter or different materials, without comprising its performance. Turning the concept into reality can, however, be somewhat of a difficult process; unchanged functionality being, of course, paramount. Furthermore, weight is intrinsically linked to the aesthetics and actuality of a product; imagine, for example, how a bricklayer would view a brick that was half the weight he was used to working with? Lightweighting demands a detailed understanding of the product, its characteristics, functionality and performance. Taking the brick again as the example, it would need to bear load (be strong in compression), be thermally stable (low heat conduction), be reasonably waterproof, of regular size and capable of enduring the local environment; all performance characteristics that should not be altered by the process of lightweighting. That said, if the characteristics can be enhanced or improved upon by such a process, so much the better.

Rightweighting, that is making the product the right weight to perform as it should, goes hand in hand with lightweighting. Rightweighting takes into account the costs involved in producing a product; although making a product lighter often brings about a cost benefit, this is not always the case. What is important is making the product the right weight so it retains all its product characteristics, performs optimally and can be produced at the correct cost point – not always the lowest cost. Rightweighting and lightweighting are not mutually exclusive; they overlap in a desire to see an optimum product at an optimum cost.

The Benefits of Lightweighting
These fall into two broad areas: Potential for reduced costs thanks to:   
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reduced material content reduced energy for processing reduced processing times

 

reduced shipping / transportation costs – lower weight, less total volume reduced moving and handling risks and costs

Enhanced sustainability credentials:    reduced carbon footprint – energy and materials reduced water footprint a truly greener product and hence greener brand and reputation

The benefits are not, of course, the purely financial ones of reduced costs or increased sales; product performance is often enhanced and innovative new products may be developed thanks to the focus on the product, its component materials and its manufacture.

Lightweighting in Practice
How does lightweighting work in practice and what benefits have been realised from this concept? We will firstly look in detail at one segment of the ceramics sector, namely tile production, and then go on to look at examples in the automotive, defence and construction sectors. Lightweighting Tiles: Challenges in the UK tiling sector include the need to compete with increasingly aggressive foreign imports, rising energy costs, increasing materials costs, material sourcing problems and growing transportation costs. Making tiles that are lighter, that contain less or perhaps different materials, use less energy and cost less to transport can, then, only be beneficial. Of course, as already stated, product characteristics must not be lost; maintaining high density, very low water absorption and small pore size is essential. Two methods that have been explored to Lightweight tiles are the use of foaming agents and careful attention to design. The Use of Foaming Agents This process involves the introduction of air filled voids into the ceramic which as a result, reduces the weight of the ceramic. Also of note is that this method may change a characteristic of the product, by giving it increased thermal insulation. In this respect, change is beneficial - the temperature of the surface of the floor tile, which comes into direct contact with people‟s skin, may be more stable. Using foaming agents, such as silicon carbide, has allowed the production of lighter tiles (up to 26% lighter)1 that still have the appropriate mechanical strength and minimal water absorption. One of the main benefits includes the ability to lower the expansion temperature and increase the expansion process. In turn, this reduces the temperature the kiln needs to be heated to and therefore reduces energy consumption.

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Lightweighting by Design One example of lightweighting ceramic tiles by design is the carving of deep back reliefs. Back reliefs are apertures on the reverse of the tile which reduces the total materials required to produce the tile. Tiles with deep back reliefs were phased out during the 1980s due to the introduction of continuous furnaces. They are, however, now being revisited as they have the potential to lightweight tiles from 2 – 31%². Automotive Up to 75% of the energy consumption of a vehicle is related to its weight. Lightweighting in this sector has not only produced significant cost savings, thanks to reduced fuel consumption, but also added significantly to increased performance. An example of such lightweighting includes the next generation of aluminium composite brakes which are forecast to result in a 60% weight reduction of the brakes. The replacement of iron brake rotors with aluminium alloy reinforced by ceramic particles and fibres will result in a more lightweight and durable replacement. Aerospace & Defence Lightweighting has always been a priority in the defence sector, most noticeably in the area of body armour, where a weight reduction of personal protection (armour/helmet, etc) reduces the load on the individual soldier, allowing him to carry more munitions, thereby making him more effective, and increasing his agility and manoeuvrability. New ceramic body armour currently in testing is 15-30% lighter (15% lighter than silicon carbide and 30% lighter than alumina)³ and has the added advantage of being more energy efficient to produce (being fired in a furnace at 1,500oC rather than 2,000oC)³. What‟s more, the performance of the armour is not compromised. Reducing the weight of aerospace components has obvious benefits in terms of increasing the effectiveness of the fuel burned, either in increasing the range or allowing greater payload to be carried for the same amount of fuel. Construction The opportunity of lightweighting in the construction sector has led to the production of hollow clay blocks. In comparison with concrete blocks which weigh up to 30 kg, hollow clay blocks only weigh 11 kg, making them a lightweight alternative for a nonload bearing wall. The load-bearing versions of the clay hollow blocks also have high thermal insulation properties which are twice as effective as concrete blocks. There is also a reduction in the cost of production and transportation which reduces the cost of the brick by 15% and, what‟s more, these hollow clay blocks are easier to lay. Ceram is currently exploring the process of geopolymerisation, a process which, potentially, will have a very beneficial impact on the construction industry. The process can produce reduced CO2 construction materials (i.e. new types of bricks and tiles) which may act as an alternative to Portland-based cement containing products. These construction materials are produced without the need for high sintering/firing temperatures which results in significant energy costs, thus making significant savings possible. Products produced by Geopolymerisation can in principle, be designed to meet specific functions – such as in use mechanical performance – and hence providing for tailoring of weight to performance – Rightweighting. Biomimetics
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The emerging field of biomimetics allows one to mimic biology and develop nanomaterials through sophisticated biotechnology and bioengineering. For example, human hard tissue mainly consists of two basic components, collagen and bone (Hydroxy Apatite in the main). It is an extremely strong and lightweight material due to its well organised structure, from nanometer, micro and up to macro scales. Mimicking the natural structure and composition of such bone / collagen components as in some of our current research could have numerous applications. As a general engineering material, it could possibly be 1/7th of the weight of steel components and 1/3rd of the weight of aluminium.

As we have seen, lightweighting has many benefits. That‟s not to say, of course, that it is an easy process to go through. It firstly requires an open-minded approach and innovative thinking to explore the possibilities and to learn from other technologies and other industries. Secondly, some commercial sense and industry knowledge must be brought to the table; lightweighting may indeed in itself bring cost benefits but not if a change in the manufacturing process necessitates a significant capital investment. This is where rightweighting comes to the fore – making the product the right weight to satisfy all criteria: Performance characteristics, direct manufacturing costs and cost reduction benefits. As energy, transportation and material costs continue to rise, and manufacturers are striving to differentiate themselves from competitors, lightweighting, thanks to its ability to reduce costs and enhance green credentials, is a concept which we, at Ceram, believe can and will be adopted in ever more industries and by ever more organisations.

¹ Garcia-Ten, J., , A., Bernardo, E., Colombo, P., Development of lightweight porcelain stoneware tiles using foaming agents. J. European Ceramic Society Vol. 32 No.4 2012 pp745-752 ² Beatriz Defez, Guillermo Peris-Fajarnes, Ignacio Tortajada, Fernando Brusola and Samuel Morillas, Flexural Strength Evaluation of Nonconstant Thickness Ceramic Floorings by Means of Finite-Element Method, Int. J. Applied Ceramic Technology Vol. 7 No. 2, 2010 pp235-247 ³Czyzewski, A., Lightweight ceramic body armour is put to the test, The Engineer, 16th June, 2011

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About Ceram
Ceram is an independent expert in innovation, sustainability and quality assurance of materials. With a long history in the ceramics industry, Ceram has diversified into other materials and other markets including aerospace and defence, medical and healthcare, minerals, electronics and energy and environment. Partnership is central to how we do business; we work with our clients to understand their needs so that we can help them overcome materials challenges, develop new products, processes and technologies and gain real, tangible results. Headquartered in Staffordshire, UK, Ceram has approved laboratories around the world.
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