Revolutionizing Manufacturing Possibilities: Creating New Die-less Methods to Expand Forming Options

Dr. Vitchuda Lertphokanont

PROFILE

Vitchuda Lertphokanont graduated in automotive design and manufacturing engineering from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand in 2010. She completed her doctorate in engineering design at the Graduate School of Science and Technology of the Kyoto Institute of Technology in 2014 and joined the Nissan Research Center (NRC) at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. There she is engaged in the research and development of die-less forming technology and tool materials.

Current Projects in a Nutshell

New Techniques for Innovative Part Forming

There is a growing need for automobiles among densely populated urban populations around the world. At the same time, customers are making increasingly diverse demands of carmakers regarding what they want in a vehicle. Purchasers of luxury brands like Infiniti are particularly demanding, and manufacturers must prepare a full range of options to satisfy them.

Using mass-production factory methods to make small lots of custom parts is an expensive proposition, though, making it hard to satisfy all customer demands. Vitchuda Lertphokanont, a researcher from Thailand, has come to Japan to explore ways to develop new production methods better suited to small lots. “In the automotive industry, in order to create a hood or panel for the car, we use a die,” she explains. “But it’s very expensive to create a die. So now we’re developing die-less forming, a technology like 3D printing, to eliminate the die. These new tools use 3D data to form the shapes that we want at a much lower cost, and we can put them to work in Nissan’s existing factories right away.”

Experience of a Lifetime

An Eye-Opening Internship in Japan

Vitchuda showed an interest in cars as a high school student and decided to study automotive design and manufacturing engineering when she went on to university in Bangkok. As graduation approached, though, she found herself facing a choice. “I had two options in mind during my studies: Japan and Germany, both global leaders in automotive high technology. In my third year at university, I had the chance to come to Japan for a corporate internship. I found much to appreciate about Japan—not only the technology but also the life and the people, who are very polite.”

After advancing to the graduate program at a university in Kyoto, Vitchuda dedicated herself to studying automotive production technology. Great change was in the air for the manufacturing industry: Germany was advancing its “Industry 4.0” strategy to computerize manufacturing and slash costs drastically, and 3D printing promised to revolutionize the way people made objects. It was then that she encountered the new, die-less manufacturing approach. “Once die-less forming lets us create the forms we want at a low cost, it will open up a whole new way to manufacture cars. I’m fascinated by the idea that one day we’ll be able to build truly one-of-a-kind vehicles, creating complex forms that can’t be pressed with a die.”

Hands-on Learning

Pursuing Individual Excellence as Part of a Team

Introducing these new manufacturing technologies into mass production will require an ability to match current production line speeds. Here one key challenge is the friction that naturally arises during the machining phase. “To increase the speed of the forming process, we have to improve the lubricant in order to reduce friction,” explains Vitchuda. “If we can do this, it also lets us increase the lifespan of the machinery.” When she worked as an intern for Nissan while in graduate school, Vitchuda took part in joint research aimed at reducing machinery friction, and this work continues today.

After earning her degree, she made the move from the academic setting to the corporate research field. At Nissan, she learned the importance of working as part of a team. “I’d only just graduated, and as a newcomer to Nissan I didn’t have much confidence. Also, unlike in a school setting, in a company there are clearly defined and scheduled targets to meet, presenting many challenges to overcome along the way. Learning the Japanese language was another very important task before me. But the team members provide very good support for my work—they’re very kind. And I get to communicate with people doing research in different areas, which is stimulating. It’s a way to develop as a researcher myself.”

Dreams for the Future

An Eye on the Future of Automaking

“Infiniti is a luxury brand, with very interesting, beautiful designs,” says Vitchuda. “One challenge for me is to create those beautiful forms, that surface appearance, with new technologies. I’m limited by the materials we have now, though.”

She is working to overcome those limitations, though, examining new materials that may be applicable to the processes she works with. “Now we’re using CNC machines to create small prototypes. In the future, I hope to put robots to work. The more we can digitize and automate the manufacturing process, the greater reductions we can achieve in production costs. We’ll also have new possibilities in customization when we can ask what the customer wants to see and re-create that with 3D data.”

<A Note to Prospective Researchers>

“Working here gives you a chance to experience many things—to learn about everything from artificial intelligence and environmental technology to the manufacturing techniques I’m working on. The fewer limits you place on your interests and fields of research, the more room you have to take on all sorts of new challenges. I really feel that this is a place where you can realize your dreams.”

Based on an interview carried out in June 2016.

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