TC’s Century 3+ Breakthrough

TRAVESE CITY – While teams of United States military personnel are disassembling military vehicles bolt by bolt in an effort to shed ounces of weight, a Traverse City company has developed a way to produce a new technology that could save hundreds of pounds per vehicle. The company? Century 3+, a division of manufacturer Century Inc., which is wowing the Department of Defense by demonstrating the breakthrough on the part of the vehicle where weight has the most impact: the brake drums.

"The average person might not give those much thought, but our military certainly does, and so have we," said Jim McManus, who is in charge of new business development for the company. "We've been working on this process for more than four years and have put a tremendous amount of our resources into it. Now it's here. The brake drum is just a metaphor for what this technology can do."

Essentially what Century has done is figure out a way to mass-produce lighter, stronger automotive parts. The brake drum is the demonstration part, "the metaphor," Century is using because it shows the dramatic weight savings, and therefore fuel savings, ceramic parts can provide. For example, on a Stryker 8-Wheel Drive Military Vehicle, a 250-pound weight savings from Century brake drums would have a resulting 1,000-pound payload savings. The process can also be used in clutch plates, cylinder liners, connecting rods, vehicle and body armor, and any surface or component subjected to extreme wear.

Here's how the new process, called "light weighting," works: A patented ring extruder technology developed by Century mixes ceramic components with other materials into a preformed "sponge" in the shape of a brake drum. Molten aluminum is forced into the ceramic sponge and then undergoes final machining and heat-treating.

Aluminum is lightweight but is weak and melts at high temperatures. Ceramic can withstand heat but is brittle and difficult to machine. The pair together makes a workable material that has the benefits of each, but not the drawbacks. The new material is used on the areas of highest wear; it is not simply a liner but is rather fused with the rest of the drum. What is created is a brake drum that is strong, can withstand high heat and all sorts of vehicle abuse, and only weighs about half of what a traditional cast iron brake drum weighs.

Using ceramic to make vehicle parts is actually nothing new, but automating the process is. Automotive manufacturers here in Michigan and elsewhere have known since the 1950's that ceramic can be used to lighten the heaviest car and truck parts but didn't have an efficient way to use ceramics in mass production. And without mass production, the use of lighter weight ceramics was simply a good idea that had little practical implications. Century's patented ring extruder produces forms continuously, so batch-to-batch variations are eliminated and automation is finally possible.

Century worked with the U.S. Army's tank research division to develop the light-weighting process. The U.S. military may be Century's first customer but probably will not be their last. According to McManus, the technology has potential use "across many vehicle systems."

Lighter hybrid cars? Fuel-efficient semis? SUVs that actually get decent gas mileage? Commercial jets? The process is patent protected, but Century recently has made it available for license in select markets. There's even a YouTube video, centurylightweight, just uploaded in late October, that explains the process.

What that video doesn't show, says McManus, is the brainpower and hard work behind the discovery. "It might sound kind of corny, but this was just plain old-fashioned American ingenuity and effort. You've got a problem, you come up with a solution, you try it out, it works, problem solved."BN