Williams Advanced Engineering teases low-cost lightweight composites
What was once the offshoot of a Formula One team is now forging quite a separate path for itself. Williams Advanced Engineering is channeling its Formula E experience to focus quite heavily on two pillars: lightweighting and electrification, in the automotive industry and wherever else they're required.
Having split from the F1 team in November, WAE is now owned by EMK Capital, a move that has given WAE significant resources to invest in its own technology development, alongside the hired gun work it's doing for clients. One key play is the Hyperbat joint venture with Unipart, which takes WAE's high-performance EV battery manufacturing capabilities up an order of magnitude. Another is Multi-Chem, an initiative that pairs high-energy-density cells with high-power-density cells to create EV battery packs with long ranges but also high-burst power capabilities.
But as much as high-performance batteries will be a growing business in the coming years, the most exciting news is around a new manufacturing process WAE is working on that would allow the creation of super-lightweight composite parts in a quick and easy pressing process. Where typically carbon or composite parts are created in a labor-intensive wrapping process, sheet by sheet, this would allow parts of equivalent strength and weight to be produced much faster and cheaper. We're talking half the weight of aluminum alloy, for the same price.
That could prove revolutionary. There is not an automaker on the planet that wouldn't want to reduce part weight by 50 percent, essentially for free. And that's not to mention the aviation industry, particularly in the emerging eVTOL air taxi field, where every ounce of weight directly correlates to energy expenditure in a hover.
We caught up with WAE Managing Director Craig Wilson for an interview. Below is an edited transcript of our call.
New Atlas: What will these new business groups you're spinning out look like?
Wilson: Well, the battery joint venture is one that's already up and running, aimed solely at producing batteries at volume. We produce batteries today, but we're only talking in the hundreds. Hyperbat will be in the thousands.
We've got three or four others that I can't tell you much about. I can touch on two. One is a more advanced BMS (battery management system) that we believe is scalable beyond just our own systems. Very advanced capability.
We're also developing some lightweight press composites. Processing of composite materials through pressing, so not the traditional pre-preg hand layup and autoclave processes, but pressing of materials. We've already validated cycle times of around 90 seconds.
This is materials that are cured and pressed in the tool at a certain temperature. We've developed a resin system with a large resin system supplier. We've found on a number of parts that we've benchmarked that to achieve roughly 50-percent weight reduction compared to, say, an aluminum alloy, at equivalent cost.
So a lot quicker than laying carbon wraps and whatnot?
Absolutely. It's a processing innovation. And new materials have been developed to enable that processing. But the IP is really in the processing.
That's interesting. How does its strength compare to traditional carbon fiber stuff?
Very well. You can tune the fiber content that you need in the process. We've got very good modeling capabilities now with carbon fiber; that's come out of Formula One.
We can put the stronger, long-strand fibers, or the higher-grade fibers, into the areas of a part where we need it. Normally when you're producing a part, the material quality is the same throughout the part. But we can place the highest quality fibers exactly where we need them in a part, and have the less expensive fibers elsewhere, where the strength requirements aren't as great. You've got a great ability to tune the strength of sections within a part.
So you save money on materials as well as on the speed of the process?
Yeah. The cost target we had was to be equivalent to today's high-volume processes, like castings, forgings, pressings. So it's equivalent pricing but with up to 50-percent reduced mass.
That would be huge for you guys.
And a lot of our projects are starting to look for volume. The Hyperbat project, the BMS systems, the composite manufacturing stuff, they're all high-volume plays.
What kind of clients is Hyperbat working with?
Aston Martin, Lotus, one other large project we'll talk about in a couple of months, and there's three or four others that we're doing engineering work for confidentially. We've got half a dozen, but four of those are really quite big projects. We're also involved in some future mobility programs; autonomous vehicles, things that may even fly.
eVTOL air taxis?
That's a very interesting space at the moment.
Yeah. So three of the six projects we're currently engaged with are not traditional automotive, they're more future mobility services.
Those future mobility things, they're not going to be targeting high performance, are they? It'll be cheap and affordable operation?
Well, for the eVTOLs I would start by saying very safe operation. Safety is of paramount importance. But they also need high performance by weight reduction. Something that flies, every gram on your powertrain is another gram you can't carry in payload.
On a mobility service, it's not dissimilar. It's not high performance, maybe, but it's got a lot of functional requirements in safety, redundancy, longevity, that sort of thing.
For us, they all represent great engineering challenges and the opportunity to continue pushing the boundaries. Finding technological solutions to problems. That's our DNA. Technical solutions for engineering problems. And in the process, learn, and that trickles through into everything else we're doing.
So what else are you guys working away on at the moment?
Well, we're doing the world's first hybrid hydrogen powertrain for a large mining vehicle. Like many industries, mining is starting to clean up its act. On a certain duty cycle at the right kind of mine, this thing can regen its way all the way down the mine, then use that power to get itself back up. The hydrogen part is really just there as a range extender; at the end of the day it uses very little fuel. That's pretty cool. It's a big one, a three- or four-hundred-tonne truck.
That's an interesting one. We're also doing some work looking at hybrid marine powertrains. Marine again is starting to come under pressure, particularly in certain harbor situations, to clean up its pollution. So we're doing a hybrid marine powertrain to help with that.
Are we talking big marine here?
No, this one's small marine. 40-foot (12-m) boats. But in that sector, the owners are starting to become pretty sensitive about the look of what they're doing.
They're conscious they'll be the first up against the wall, those yacht owners!
Yes, yes. But a large cross-section of areas. Marine, aviation, a couple of defense projects; I can't talk about those, but they're related to electrification.
And then there's the EIS fund we created a couple of years ago with Foresight. We're the technical partner in that and that's around investing in promising startup businesses, ones that need some technical support as well as money. People that have great ideas, but need some help with company management, finance and maybe engineering.
That's going well, it's raised nearly 50 million pounds (US$61 million). We've deployed around 20 million of that in 19 different companies. Really quite exciting to watch, particularly in a time like now with coronavirus when it's even harder for small companies to get access to money.
Any standouts you'd like to highlight?
There's one company, Open Bionics, that's making a lower-cost artificial limb that has sufficient capability for kids to live a more normal life, but at a cost where it can be replaced as the child grows. Unless you're very wealthy, that's normally a big restriction, kids growing out of them.
The other really cool thing about those is that you can change the surface of them to have a superhero arm, or whatever. So maybe in some cases, instead of feeling disadvantaged, some kids can feel like they've got an advantage, because they've got a really cool hero arm. That one stands out for me.
Thanks to Craig Wilson and the team at WAE for their time.
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And to carry 300 tons uphill out of an open-pit mine, you need a really serious engine and transmission.