The Magna team in the Czech Republic had a nickname for the first prototype of their composite space frame, a groundbreaking thermoplastic liftgate technology that first debuted on the 2020 Toyota Supra that blasted out of the Magna Steyr assembly plant in Graz, Austria last year.
Because of its striped appearance, due to complex continuous fiber filament winding technology, they called their first prototype part the “Black Tiger,” a nod toward the area's professional hockey club the “White Tigers” and the rare Bengal tigers in the local Liberec Zoo.
And like the unusual animal, the composite space frame stands out in its environment, earning recognition as a finalist in the coveted 2020 Automotive News PACE Awards.
The Magna technology, which achieves a 10 percent mass reduction over steel, is the backbone of the Supra’s liftgate. The composite space frame not only helped to shave weight off the new Toyota hatchback coupe, it gave Supra designers the freedom to spice up the rear with a dramatic liftgate that is both sculptural and strong.
Team members say its application on the Supra is just the beginning.
global director of innovation at Magna Exteriors
Magna Exteriors global product line director
“The composite space frame is a perfect solution,” said Brian Krull, the global director of innovation at Magna Exteriors. “This technology provides an opportunity in the market where we can make an impact and grow the business.”
There is the potential for use in other parts of the vehicle where a lightweight reinforcing structure is needed, including side door modules and composite windshield headers. It promises to work well on the challenges posed by large SUVs, especially when it comes to cutting vehicle mass and weight, and reducing emissions.
Krull credits the Czech Republic team for “coming up with the concept and taking it all the way.”
“Their team-based approach is the best way,” he said. “You need inputs from everybody to arrive at the perfect solution.”
Adds Riad Chaaya, Magna Exteriors global product line director: “Others would have given up early on when they saw how difficult this was. But the team did not give up. They saw the vision, kept working on it for years and made it a reality.”
Little wonder that the tiger analogy continues to resonate with team members, some of whom are planning a special outing in early 2020 to support the Liberec White Tigers, the local professional ice hockey team – and celebrate their accomplishment.
The composite space frame team with the Toyota Supra
Keeping an Open Mind
Work on the composite space frame began in 2011 for Dr. Josef Puta, a Magna Exteriors technology leader, and has turned into “the biggest project” of his life. It also reinforced the benefit of cross-group collaboration and tapping into innovators from universities, suppliers and startups.
“We had a very strong partnership with Magna designers and people who were fresh from universities,” said Puta, who earned a doctorate in engineering technology from the Technical University of Liberec. “They are open minded and ready to think about new technologies. In the end, we were one team.”
It is estimated that at least 100 people provided insight and inspiration on the project.
Key moments included the day in late summer 2019 when a red Toyota Supra was put on display next to the Liberec assembly line, a visible sign of the team’s accomplishment, and the day in 2011 when the first L-shaped prototype part was built and the team popped the cork on a bottle of sparkling juice.
“We had the part in our hands,” Puta said. “It was an important step in showing we are one team. Besides, it’s all about friendship in the end.”
Dr. Josef Puta, a Magna Exteriors technology leader
Building a Contender
Growing up in the Czech Republic, Stanislav Tichy played center on an ice hockey team, learning important lessons that he brings to his current job as Magna Exteriors global product manager.
“Even in my professional work, I try to behave like a sportsman,” Tichy said. “Ice hockey is not a one-man show. Neither is what we do. It’s a team show with team spirit.”
The greatest challenge with the composite space frame was “not just creating the part,” Tichy said. “World-class manufacturing was part of the equation.”
Shaving time off the precise manufacturing process, which features a big robot with
octopus-like arms placing thousands of filaments on a core of polyurethane foam, was critical. Take a look at the PACE Space Frame video here.
“Our goal was to produce the part in five minutes,” Tichy said. “That goal was important for high-volume production and pricing. Today, it’s down to about three minutes to produce the part for the Supra. It’s all about having a good idea and believing in yourself.”
Stanislav Tichy, Magna Exteriors global product manager
on Toyota GR Supra
As the lead engineer on the composite space frame, Paul Hasl emphasizes that what happened was not just a big idea, but a “series of innovations to reach the goal.”
“There were hundreds of small advances to make the original idea perfect,” he said. “These are micro-changes, everything from taping to fine-tuning the process, as you take it from an idea to manufacturing. That’s the difficult part.”
He added: “It took thousands of hours to get to where we are today. That’s why the whole team gets the glory.”
Hasl, who has a master’s degree in physics from the University of Gothenburg, said his role came at the beginning of the process in 2011, as the concept was developed and evaluated. Early on, he dreamed of becoming an architect or an artist, and even spent some time sculpting. Today, he calls himself a “designing physicist” and said his work combines creativity and practicality.
“I like to create the innovations,” he said. “Nine out of 10 ideas end up in a drawer. You have to make mistakes to find the right innovation. Today, we’re working on more improvements with liftgates. I still have lots of ideas.”
Body stampings, front and rear bumpers, brackets, reinforcement and supports
Complete liftgate module with composite space frame reinforcement
Mechatronics, Mirrors, Lighting
Side door latches and hood hinges
Complete vehicle manufacturing; fuel tank, filler cap and filling pipe