Automotive Assembly

Back to the Future . . . With Wood

I have been following the lightweighting trend in the auto industry for quite some time. Recently, I’ve written about the challenges of assembling aluminum and carbon-fiber composites. Other materials, such as magnesium and titanium, also hold potential for automakers and suppliers struggling to make lighter body panels, powertrain components and structural parts.

Now, engineers in Finland have taken a page from the past and developed a car that’s assembled with wood components. Their concept vehicle is on display this week at the Geneva International Motor Show.

The Biofore is a joint effort of UPM (a Finnish pulp and paper company) and the Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. It uses wood-based biomaterials to replace a number of parts that are traditionally made with thermoplastics, including the passenger compartment floor, center console, instrument panel cover, dashboard, side skirts and door panels.

“Biomaterials are a real alternative to traditional oil-based materials,” claims Pekka Hautala, Biofore project director at Metropolia University, who spent the past four years working with engineering students to design the green vehicle. “They offer new design opportunities.”

Once upon a time, wood was widely used in the auto industry. Structural framework (covered with sheetmetal body skins) and floorboards were built out of ash, birch, elm, maple and other hardwoods. Oak was also used for truck bodies. After being shaped and cured, pieces of wood were glued and screwed together in jigs.

The Model T contained 250 board feet of wood. In fact, Ford Motor Co. owned 400,000 acres of forest and operated several sawmills in northern Michigan to satisfy its huge appetite for wood.

Fisher Body (a division of General Motors between 1919 and 1984) owned large tracts of timberland in Arkansas. It operated sawmills in Louisiana and a large woodworking plant in Memphis, TN.

Ford and GM used wood in their vehicles up until 1937, when all-steel bodies prevailed (except for “woodie” station wagons, which lasted into the early 1950s—the last vehicle equipped with real wood body panels was the 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon).

What do you think? Would wood work well in today’s vehicles? Will wood become a viable option to aluminum, carbon-fiber composites and other next-generation automotive materials?

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