Lightening the Load for Manufacturers
October 1, 2012
From:  www.nytimes.com
By:  Nicole LaPorte


Student research at Ohio State University could play a role in creating lighter-weight, more environmentally sustainable cars and trucks.


SHIPPING pallets, those slatted platforms that fill warehouses, are intended to move heavy loads, not people.  


But innovations in their design and manufacture may play an important role in creating a fleet of more environmentally sustainable cars and trucks.


Taylor Hopkins, 24, was part of a five-student research team at Ohio State University that recently created three novel designs for shipping pallets. Ordinary pallets are made of wood; the students’ prototypes are made of aluminum, which lasts longer.


The aluminum pallets are also much lighter than wood pallets, which saves fuel during shipping.


“We were presented with the problem of, try and come up with a new pallet that we thought could make an impact environmentally,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We ended up going with aluminum just because it’s very widely used and it’s lightweight.”


Aluminum is also significantly more expensive than wood, which means that the students’ designs are unlikely to become the industry norm soon. But the technology behind them could be useful to carmakers, which have started to embrace aluminum as a means of building lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.


“This project is such an interesting microcosm of the challenges that the transportation industry in total is facing, in moving from heavy steel to lightweight aluminum,” said Randall Scheps, automotive marketing director of Alcoa, and chairman of the aluminum transportation group at the Aluminum Association. Mr. Scheps said the student team looked at various methods of joining, or bonding, metals. It also looked at forming, or bending, metals, and at recycling. “These are all issues that the auto industry is facing,” he said.


Companies and foundations have been looking to young innovators for environmentally sustainable and cost-effective solutions to real-world problems. In the case of the shipping pallets, the project was funded with a grant from the Alcoa Foundation, which wants future engineers to think about use of lightweight materials. (Although the use of aluminum clearly benefits Alcoa, an aluminum company, it did not have to be used in the project.)


It’s an issue that has taken on urgency in Detroit in anticipation of Obama administration fuel-economy regulations that will require American vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Ford, for instance, that producer of macho, all-terrain trucks, is working on an aluminum version of its popular F-150 pickup.


Dr. Glenn Daehn, a professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State and the students’ research adviser, says the aluminum shipping pallets are an example of “using simple projects to inject ideas into how we might make lighter-weight door systems or seats” — research that Ohio State is working on with companies like Honda and General Motors.


Mr. Hopkins said welding is an issue in dealing with aluminum. “There’s just a certain property of aluminum that if you heat it up too much, or for too long, it loses a lot of its strength,” he said.


To get around that, the students relied on “conformal interference joining technology,” a method of joining metals through a process involving electromagnetism, as opposed to heat.


Then there was the question of how to make the pallets cost-effective. Aluminum pallets on the market can cost more than $200 each, in part because they are welded by hand. Aluminum pallets are used to ship materials that must be kept sterile, or that will be stored for long periods.


But the students’ models are all estimated to cost less than $75 each. That was achieved by making the designs simple enough so they could be mass-produced.


“They weren’t some crazy designs that would take 20 hours to produce, where you’d have to do it one at a time,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Our designs can be automated. They only have two, separate pieces in a couple of them.” That makes it possible to “knock them out in a short amount of time,” he said.


WHILE the project could eventually affect how cars are manufactured, it may not change the world’s shipping pallets. According to Edgar Deomano, technical director of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, wood pallets, which account for 90 percent of the domestic market, are not going away, mainly because of cost.


“A recycled, or repaired, wood pallet could go for as low as $3 each,” Mr. Deomano said.


As for the argument that wooden shipping pallets are responsible for deforestation, he said: “That’s a false impression. Our industry is able to recycle pallets again and again. You don’t have to cut down more trees, you just have to repair existing pallets.”


Dr. Daehn says he remains hopeful, however, that a company will “step forward and commercialize” the new aluminum shipping pallets.


“We need more than a student project to do that, but I think we’ve shown them the promise is there.”


In the meantime, the project has already served Mr. Hopkins well. After graduating from Ohio State in June, he was hired as a metallurgist at Valbruna Slater Stainless in Fort Wayne, Ind.


“It was definitely one of my résumé highlights,” he said.


Photo By: Andrew Spear for The New York Times
A team of students recently came up with designs for a lightweight aluminum shipping pallet.