While Henry Ford said that there were no big problems, only lots of small ones, he may not have had the latest technology from Ford Motor Company in mind.

Pushing the frontiers of materials science to new limits, Ford and top-ranked national and international universities have built a software modeling tool that predicts how properties of materials will behave and change during the manufacturing process.

Photos: Ford Media

Far from an academic oddity, the technology has already been applied to the design of the cylinder heads and engine block of Ford's 3.5-liter Ecoboost production engine. Other parts developed using this technology will see the real world shortly in the form of aluminum cylinder heads for the 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel - where the advanced design heads resulted in a 160-pound weight savings.

Now dubbed Computational Materials Engineering, the concept's feasibility was initially doubted when Ford and its partners first embarked on the preliminary research in the late 1990's. This work involved analyzing and verifying how the important properties of metals were affected by the metal's internal structure - micrograins, phase structures and even down to the atomic level.

The results, however, are far from theoretical. Components that benefit from the approach are more durable and efficiently constructed, which saves the company considerable development time and money. In fact, the process is estimated to save Ford between $2 and $5 million a year in reducing test requirements and product development time.

John Allison is Senior technical leader at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and a key developer of the Virtual Aluminum Castings software tool set used by the company. “Computational materials engineering is about blending engineering and science. Why is it worth it? Reduction of test time. Higher-quality parts. In other words, you’re getting the highest possible quality at the lowest possible cost.”

The team has now branched out from powertrains to other aspects of vehicle design and manufacturing. The work of Allison’s team with magnesium enabled development of a lighter-weight liftgate for the 2010 Lincoln MKT. Using magnesium for this part – the largest magnesium die casting in the world – allowed for a 40 percent weight savings.

This contemporary focus on small-scale problems would certainly have made Henry proud.

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