Eight things to know about the aluminum intensive 2017 Audi Q7 and R8

Oct. 1, 2017
The Q7 uses a mix of 51 percent steel and 49 percent aluminum in its body, out pacing similar hybrid mixes in the industry and arguably planting a new standard for other automakers to look to.  

Fans of the “Jurassic Park” franchise are all too familiar with the movies’ message about scientific innovation moving too fast. To quote one character wagging his finger at the park founder, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”

That’s the stuff of science fiction movies, but it could also describe a section of the collision repair industry that wonders why automakers seem to work so much harder imagining new designs than figuring out affordable ways to fix them. Judging by a recent I-CAR study showing more than 66 percent of shops not engaging in ongoing training programs, an even larger part of the repair industry isn’t overly concerned with how it will repair these vehicles—for now anyways.

All that needs to change and quickly since indications are that the collision repair industry is about to undergo a revolution where tomorrow’s designs will forever change how all repairers do business. Enter the 2017 Audi Q7 and A8, two redesigned aluminum-intensive luxury vehicles whose hybrid material engineering is help lay the groundwork for how vehicles will be repaired in the decades to come.

(Photos courtesy of Audi media) The 2017 Audi Q7 and A8 benefit from significant reductions in weight and increased structural rigidity thanks to extensive use of advanced steels and aluminum. The Q7 shed 716 pounds from the previous model.

Skeptical? Step inside the new world of collision work as ABRN breaks down the eight realities Audi’s latest creations will be bringing to your doors in the next several years.

Hybrid happenings
Not all that long ago, repairers were forced to pause and take a renewed look at their work when automakers began mixing traditional steels and UHSS. Identifying advanced steels and performing recommended repairs proved to be a challenging task for shops until manufacturers provided more up-to-date guidance on handling these cutting-edge materials. The Q7 and A8 considerably raise the stakes in the materials game by using a combination of four different steels and three aluminums in their body structures alone:

  • Soft steel
  • High strength steel
  • Advanced high strength steel
  • UHSS (hot formed)
  • Aluminum casting
  • Aluminum profile, and
  • Sheet aluminum.

The Q7 uses a mix of 51 percent steel and 49 percent aluminum in its body, out pacing similar hybrid mixes in the industry and arguably planting a new standard for other automakers to look to.

Aluminum assimilation
Finishing out its form, the Q7 also includes a full aluminum hood, roof doors and hatch. The four aluminum doors each lost nearly 52 pounds. Together with the advanced steels, aluminum helped the new Q7 shed 716 pounds from the previous generation. The previous Q7 weighed 5,000 pounds so it effectively cut 14 percent of its mass. The A8 further ups aluminum ante even higher with a body structure that’s nearly 58 percent aluminum.

Alternative answers
The A8 also makes extensive use of other materials, most notably magnesium and carbon fiber (which finds a home in the Q7’s seat dividers, along with nearby areas). Audi says the A8’s front front-brace linking and strut towers are magnesium while the largest portion of the passenger cage is a carbon-fiber rear panel. Not only do the two materials cut weight (with Magnesium usage alone providing a 28 percent weight saving in place of traditional materials), they also produce greater rigidity for a more comfortable ride, improved handing and better acoustics. Audi says carbon fiber provides 33 percent of the torsional rigidity for the entire vehicle.

Bonding breakthroughs
The use of hybrid parts required Audi to increase the number of different bonding solutions that could join different materials. The Q7 features 11 different joining types, including:

  • Resistance spot welding for steel to steel and aluminum to aluminum bonds
  • MIG welding
  • MAG welding
  • Structural adhesives
  • Friction element welding (A rotating friction element penetrates the upper aluminum layer and then produces a frictional joint with the basic material--UHSS hot-shaped steel—through the application of frictional heat and high axial pressure.)
  • Clinching
  • Roller hemming (which allowed Audi to raise door height in the A8 by 1.8 inches)
  • Punch Riveting (using a hollow rivet to connect UHSS hot-formed parts), and
  • Friction element welding.

The A8 adds three more bonding types to its mix, including laser and MAG (metal active gas) welds and grip-punch rivets.

(Photo courtesy of Audi media) Because of the use of multiple materials, both Audis used a variety of joining types. The Q7 features 11 different kinds of bonds and the A8 11.

This means shops wanting to repair the two Audis will need to be trained in these areas—at least the ones that are accessible to collision repairers. According to Audi Collision Repair Program Manager Mark Allen, some of the joining methods can only be performed by advanced, extremely expensive machining equipment at Audi manufacturing facilities. Should these bonds need to be recreated during a collision repair, shops must follow Audi guidelines to build a suitable replacement bond, which in many cases will involve utilizing a rivet to attach UHSS to aluminum.

Exponential investments
Typically, the only shops needing the training to do this work would be part of an Audi certification program since only those shops can order structural parts. Being part of these programs remains expensive. Allen places the cost of a clean room and Audi approved tools for aluminum repair around $90,000. The industry is finding such an investment more acceptable since it can be utilized as part of multiple certification programs.

The extensive use of carbon fiber--or more specifically, carbon-fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP)--in the A8, however, requires repairers to pick up additional costs, including a specialized filtration system and a sonogram camera. “The woodpecker method of uncovering damage won’t work here,” explains Allen, who says only a sonogram camera can provide the cross dimensional image necessary to determine if the part has been damaged.

If that’s the case, he says, the part must be replaced since it cannot be repaired (as with advanced structural parts, only Audi-certified shops can order carbon fiber pieces). Replacement means cutting away the old part and using special adhesives to bond the new part. Off-gassing from this process produces dangerous fumes that can only be safely removed using a particulate and charcoal filtering unit to protect shop workers. With the sonogram camera—which usually runs near $40,000—the total investment for performing carbon fiber repairs runs an additional $100,000.

Big time buy in
Allen says these costs haven’t scared off shops wanting to perform Audi certified work. When changes to Audi’s certification program was announced, 163 of 170 shops agreed to remain. “There was no pushback,” Allen says. “They realize that’s the business and understand this is how shops must operate if they’re going to remain in business.”

(Photo courtesy of Audi media) Roller hemming bonding allowed engineers to raise the door height on the A8 nearly two inches, making entering and leaving the vehicle easier.

Industry evolution
The rest of the repair industry might soon need to be adopting the same attitude since Allen is convinced that the kind of design revolution Audi is undergoing will be shared by most auto manufacturers. Allen says repairers shouldn’t discount the effect of Audi’s latest designs simply because they’re featured on high-end vehicles with relatively modest production numbers.

The A8 sold just over 4,100 models last year while 30,563 Q7 models hit American streets. However, their designs represent the kind of change Allen says manufacturers everywhere will need to adopt for a variety of reasons. Not only does the use of advanced and hybrid material parts cut emissions and improve engine efficiency (to meet demands of numerous countries), the technology Audi has developed to build them into automobiles offers other significant financial advantages.

Audi reports its laser welding technology provides exact positioning that “considerably" reduces the risk of hot cracking during production, which creates damage and waste. Moreover, Audi says the process saves 95 percent on recurring costs in series production since it “eliminates the necessity of expensive process controls.”

Also notable here is the fact the Audi worked with Porsche (both are owned by Volkswagen) to create this technology. Though Audi says each brand will remain distinct, they will share vehicle strategy for architectures, modules and components to shape mobility up to 2025, according to Audi. Industry analysts say there is little doubt the technology will see its way into Volkswagens as well, translating into multiple brands and models sporting the same advanced designs with all requiring special tooling and training to repair.

This revolution looks to build steam across the automotive industry as competing OEMs ramp up their efforts to build mixed material products. “In three to five years, this kind of design will be common in most mass-produced vehicles,” Allen predicts.

(Photos courtesy of Audi media) The updated Audi designs have repair implications well beyond those that Audi certified shops will see. Industry experts see wide-spread use of advanced mixed material structures throughout the auto manufacturing world over the next five years.

Closing the generation gap
Repairers still needing some convincing on just how rapidly these changes are going to overtake the collision industry might want to consider how quickly they developed at Audi. The first generation of the Q7 (produced 2005-2015) was designed to compete in the hot selling luxury crossover SUV category by offering top tier performance and safety technology. The Gen 1 featured soft, advanced and high strength steels along with some aluminum (making just 8 percent of its mass) in a distinctive body concept with no aluminum or hot-formed steels in the structure. This same setup that was part of the luxury market is today common in most vehicles, although the steels have in many cases been updated.

The second generation includes all the materials already listed here, along with a design with no horizontal/vertical separation between aluminum and steel. Hence, in roughly a decade the Q7 underwent a transition from using a form that was cutting edge, then became part of the industry norm before suiting back up with an all-new cutting-edge design. It did so in an industry where all auto manufacturers are under pressure to produce the same kinds of innovations in shorter spans of time. Using history as a guide, expecting the same kinds of innovations across OEM brands and models in just over the next five years is a pretty safe bet.

Considering the repair industry is playing a kind of “game” predicting whether, where and when they need to invest training and tool dollars to handle such changes, the Q7 and A8 provide some pretty sound evidence that the time is now to begin addressing hybrid material designs. These vehicles may not be at most shop doors tomorrow, but they have counterparts on the way who may be knocking at doors everywhere by 2020.

About the Author

Tim Sramcik

Tim Sramcik began writing for ABRN over 20 years ago. He has produced numerous news, technical and feature articles covering virtually every aspect of the collision repair market. In 2004, the American Society of Business Publication Editors recognized his work with two awards. Srmcik also has written extensively for Motor Ageand Aftermarket Business. Connect with Sramcik on LinkedIn and see more of his work on Muck Rack. 

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