Nearly two-thirds of academic research and development dollars support basic research, according to a recent Science and Engineering Indicators report from the National Science Foundation. While basic research is critical to answering fundamental questions, applied research – and subsequent development activities – move discoveries from the lab to the real world.

Our annual coverage of university R&D focuses on the development of innovative solutions to improve existing products or create new ones. We highlight research projects at two universities that contribute to key markets in the composites industry – automotive and infrastructure. The first is a demonstration project for a car door, and the second is a commercially available product for pedestrian bridges.

Fewer Parts, Lighter Weight

Project: CFRTP Car Door

School: Clemson University, University of Delaware

Location: Clemson, S.C., and Newark, Del.

Principal Investigator: Srikanth Pilla

Researchers at Clemson University and the Center for Composite Materials at the University of Delaware developed a carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) door for an Acura MDX that is 45% lighter and has 52% fewer structural parts than the original steel and aluminum one.

Industry collaborators on the research project, which began in 2016 and was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, include Honda Development and Manufacturing of America LLC and Envalior. The grant stipulated that researchers develop a new technology based on a door in a production vehicle, so the partners selected the 2015 MDX. Srikanth Pilla, principal investigator and director of the Center for Composite Materials, says that the grant parameters were demanding.

“The door had to be reduced by 42.5% weight but still meet all the performance metrics – static, dynamic, crash, everything,” he says. In addition, the baseline costs could only increase by $5 per pound of saved weight, and the technology had to be scalable to 20,000 vehicles – or 80,000 doors.

The design was also limited to the exact peripheral geometry of the original door so that it could be fitted onto the vehicle and crash tested. “There were so many design constraints that we had to overcome,” Pilla stresses. “We really did a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to reduce weight.”

The team’s strategy included aggressive part consolidation. They removed the interior of the Acura MDX door, integrated it into the frame and reduced structural parts from 17 to seven, including the two CFRTP components.

The thermoplastic parts were formed by heating pre-formed blanks and pressing them between two metal die stamps. Die forming was chosen because of its similarity to the metal stamping process Honda currently uses to manufacture Acura doors. “That way they would need far less investment to utilize the new technology, but could instead modify existing press lines,” says Pilla.