RACEForm: Impression Technologies upscaling the HFQ forming process
Aluminium alloys sit at the forefront of lightweighting in the automotive industry and beyond. They offer an attractive strength-to-weight ratio at a cost point that’s often more applicable to high-volume applications than exotic materials such as carbon fibre.
Although aluminium alloys are now widely used in automotive applications, there is still significant scope to optimise their performance and reduce the associated costs. The Hot Form Quench (HFQ) process is a good example of this work. It begins with a sheet of aluminium alloy that’s heated before being placed into a tool where it’s cooled rapidly while being pressed into shape. The shaped part is then put into another oven for heat ageing.
Combined, these steps not only create the part’s shape, but also optimise its metallurgy to achieve high strength. The process lends itself to tight radiuses and complex geometries that would be hard to achieve with a single sheet using conventional methods. This means that a single HFQ part can sometimes replace multiple cold formed parts, saving time, money and weight.
Furthermore, the high-strength metallurgy typically allows less material to be used and is achieved through downgauging – which further reduces the part’s weight. The unique process of HFQ is also a potential enabler to use a greater percentage of recycled aluminium from a broader range of scrap sources as a material feed, which reduces both its cost and its environmental impact.
Originally developed by researchers at Imperial College London, the HFQ process has been industrialised by Impression Technologies Ltd, which built a pilot line at its UK facility in Coventry in 2016. Having established low-volume production supply to Lotus/Aston Martin , the company approached the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) for support to upscale the technology and broaden its reach into new and high volume market opportunities.
Impression Technologies led a consortium that also included Gestamp, Innoval Technology, Imperial College and Brunel University. Meanwhile, Jaguar Land Rover was the supporting OEM, providing component use cases and technical guidance, while Novelis Europe supplied aluminium recycling expertise and provision of materials. The project was dubbed RACEForm (Rapid Aluminium Cost Effective Forming).
The APC provided £4.7 million of grant matched funding as part of the collaborative research and development (CR&D) competition APC7, much of which was used to adapt the HFQ process for higher production volumes, as demonstrated by Gestamp in Germany and Spain on modified high-volume boron steel part production lines.
“We looked at all aspects of the technology from the material arriving on site to simulation, pre and post treatments and tooling,” comments Simon Corbett, Project Leader for the RACEForm Project at Impression Technologies. “For instance, we are moving from the ovens that we currently have on site to a rolling furnace that will support high-speed production for large OEMs.”
Exporting IP to global markets
As well as investment in the UK, the upscaling work has helped Impression Technologies to establish additional sites overseas, opening the doors to new clients.
“There are so many elements that have now opened up as a result of the programme and the funding that just wouldn’t have happened within the same timescale without the APC’s support,”
said Adrian Tautscher, Sustainability & Circular Economy Lead at Impression Technologies. “It’s enabled us to do things on a scale that would have been very difficult for a small business otherwise and it’s seen us working together with tier one and OEM partners.”
Impression Technologies now has the capacity to manufacture around 100,000 units a year at its Coventry site, and it is currently licensing its technology to external partners globally.
HFQ manufacturing partnership agreements have already been signed in Europe, China and the US – all aimed at bringing the innovative HFQ process into new markets and expanding the reach of lightweight materials and evaluating use of high recycled aluminium for a low carbon future. A significant step is the installation of a new HFQ line in Germany by Fischer Group that is now supplying HFQ production parts from their site in Aachen.