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There’s no question that reducing mass has benefits regardless of what you make—if you’re designing rockets, the lighter you make it, the more payload capacity you can offer your customer. If you’re creating an airplane or automobile, less weight equates to better fuel efficiency. If you’re designing a consumer product, lightweight devices are more appealing to customers than heavier equivalents. And even if you’re working on a piece of industrial equipment, less weight can result in more energy efficient and faster operation.

The challenge for lightweighting is that it’s just one target in the world of competing objectives that engineers live. How do you dial in a design so that it’s as light as possible, yet still meets all requirements and cost targets in the shortest amount of time possible?


Anyone can design a bridge that stands,

but it takes an engineer to design a bridge that just barely avoids collapse.


Before we dive into that, let’s start by looking at why lightweighting has become such an important criterion in many development efforts.

If it moves or is moved, it should be lightweighted. Planes, trains, and automobiles, of course. But it can also be extended to moving components of an industrial machine or even consumer goods that people carry around with them. Movement requires energy. Whether that energy is exerted by an engine, actuator, or human, the less effort that is required to generate motion, the better your product will be received.

Airbus’ new bionic partition is 45 percent (30 kg) lighter than current designs. Airbus estimates that the new design approach can save up to 3,180 pounds of fuel per partition every year. Image courtesy of Airbus.

For every 1 kg of material removed from an airplane, 106 kg of jet fuel is saved per year. For automobiles, decreasing weight by 10 percent can increase fuel efficiency by as much as 3 percent.1 There are also regulations driving lightweighting efforts, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that require annual improvements to fuel efficiency for passenger cars and light trucks.

For every 1 kg of material removed from an airplane, 106 kg of jet fuel is saved per year. For automobiles, decreasing weight by 10 percent can increase fuel efficiency by as much as 3 percent.1 There are also regulations driving lightweighting efforts, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that require annual improvements to fuel efficiency for passenger cars and light trucks.

There are performance improvements to be had as well. Lighter weight components driven by motors and actuators operate faster, resulting in faster cycle times or additional capacity that has a direct impact on operational profitability. Lighter cars are better able to accelerate and maneuver. Mileage and carrying capacity increase, while wear and tear is lessened. Materials such as carbon and glass fiber are now being used in the design of wind turbines to increase blade length while accommodating higher speeds—a 20-30 percent reduction in weight can increase generating capability by as much as 3X.2

In the case of consumer goods such as luggage and electronics, lightweighting improves the ergonomics for a product as well as performance. When applied to sports equipment, players can increase speed and enjoyment as things like bicycle frames become lighter while helmets, pads, and guards become less cumbersome.

It should also be mentioned that if done properly, less material is consumed which can have the side effect of lower costs as well. Note that this doesn’t always hold true, especially when replacing a heavier low cost material with one that is more exotic or requires more expensive manufacturing techniques.

Any lightweighting effort can also reduce transportation and shipping costs, but one must be mindful that such costs are no longer calculated based upon weight alone. Newer pricing mechanisms recently adopted by major companies such as UPS, FedEx and DHL use dimensional pricing, which also takes into account the volume of the packaging. Therefore, beyond lightweighting, packaging solutions must also take into account the minimization of package volume to realize cost benefits.

There’s always a tradeoff. Mass cannot simply be shed without accounting for all the other performance criteria of the product. The good news is that many products are over-designed with high safety factors, so dropping weight in the right locations will still meet strength requirements. There are other, less obvious factors, however, that should be considered.

Any lightweighting effort can also reduce transportation and shipping costs, but one must be mindful that such costs are no longer calculated based upon weight alone. Newer pricing mechanisms recently adopted by major companies such as UPS, FedEx and DHL use dimensional pricing, which also takes into account the volume of the packaging. Therefore, beyond lightweighting, packaging solutions must also take into account the minimization of package volume to realize cost benefits.

There’s always a tradeoff. Mass cannot simply be shed without accounting for all the other performance criteria of the product. The good news is that many products are over-designed with high safety factors, so dropping weight in the right locations will still meet strength requirements. There are other, less obvious factors, however, that should be considered.

Lighter weight parts are more prone to vibration issues, so careful evaluation of the natural frequencies at which they will resonate should be done to ensure it will not fail catastrophically in service. Additionally, more dampening may be required that could negate mass-reduction efforts.

When replacing materials, you also need to look further than just density. Temperature, pressure, chemical resistance, electrical insulation, and other properties need to be appropriate for the environment in which the product will be used.

Designing lighter parts can also cost more, especially when substituting in advanced materials such as carbon-fiber and other composites. Designing with newer materials often has a learning curve that, when paired with more complex geometric designs, results in lengthier and more complex development cycles. Even when newer manufacturing processes are introduced to legacy products, the time it takes to redesign (and sometimes consolidate) parts can be substantial.

Additional costs can also be incurred when using newer processes designed to produce lighter materials and parts. Parts made more flimsy need to be reinforced through additional fasteners and adhesives, adding complexity and resulting in more manufacturing resources.

Further considerations must be made regarding user experience and expectations. Depending upon circumstance “lighter” can sometimes seem “cheaper”, especially when once “sturdy” steel parts are replaced with aluminum or metal parts are replaced with plastic. Whether or not consumers will buy into the use of inlays that mimic natural materials for plastic parts to give a better sense of something more authentic should be factored into any design decisions.

One must also take into account the cascading effect that can happen as a result of weight reduction in engineering design. Replacing a heavier material with a lighter one (changing certain automotive parts from all steel to steel with aluminum or all aluminum) may create new issues. Different painting processes may be required, such as in the case of sheet metal versus carbon fiber. Unlike the more uniform surfacing of metal, carbon fiber tends to be more porous, filled with pits, voids and other imperfections that leave surfaces uneven.

Different welding techniques is another example of downstream manufacturing impacts. Welding aluminum to steel or even aluminum to aluminum, as in the case of GM’s Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan, while faster than riveting (and lighter than the rivets, themselves), is still in its experimental phases, consumes far more energy, and currently only used for lower volume production applications.4