Crashing into the research front

By Kenneth Stoltz

At SIMLab, the saying "it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good" could serve as a motto. Shooting, squeezing, crashing and destruction have produced one of the most innovative research environments in Norway.



Death toll: 1.2 million; 39 million injured. Every year. The ugly results of car accidents on a world basis are unacceptable – socially, politically and financially.

Professor Magnus Langseth at NTNU has been important in building an influential laboratory that will make the highway traffic safer and more eco-friendly.

”The goal is to become the leading international research centre in the design of crash and protective structures. We have already made our mark nationally and internationally within this field," said Professor Langseth.

Explosions, impacts, collisions, and grenade shots are regarded as accident situations that to an increasing degree are subject to research which is decisive in the development of civil and military engineering tools. Besides, safety, environmental challenges, economy, and structural reliability are often the engines in the process of innovation and the development of new products.

These are the areas where SIMLab has got all it takes to crash right into the research front.

Deformed high-strength steel top-hat sections after quasi-static testing. Photo: Mentz Indergaard/NTNU InfoEuropean car giants on the team
SIMLab is going to develop methods and tools for the virtual product development of structures exposed to impact and collisions. In cooperation with partners such as Hydro Aluminium, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, BMW, Audi, and Renault, SIMLab has thoroughly mapped the tasks that must be solved to achieve ground-breaking research within the strategically important areas of safety, the environment, economy, and structural reliability.

”The knowledge we have is generic, general – yes, very general, actually. We are trying to develop numerical models that describe the properties of the material, impacts, collisions, etc. When I say that our knowledge is general, I mean that it can be used on anything from offshore technology to cars, where we can also model the production processes," explains Magnus Langseth.

Today, the Norwegian light metals industry is a major supplier of safety-related components for the car manufacturing industry – an industry that is becoming increasingly dependent on accurate and effective virtual models of their products. At the same time, cost levels are a constant issue for the bottom line. SIMLab is playing an important part for an industry that is facing a significant innovation process.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO Time is money
SIMLab’s great strength lies in computer tools that show how aluminium behaves in different situations, for instance in collisions. Numerous experiments are conducted with aluminium in order to document that the computer tool provides the correct results. This is in line with the car manufacturers’ requirements. They are working hard to construct the virtual car. The car’s behaviour on the computer shows how it will behave in traffic. In this way, car manufacturers can put a car into production sooner. And if there was ever place where time is money, it is in a car factory.

”We still have a job to do, convincing car manufacturers of the advantages of using aluminium in cars. Collision safety is used as an argument against aluminium, but we can show that this is incorrect if aluminium is used properly and based on the premises of the material. Over time, we see that the car manufacturing industry is increasingly adopting our ideas,” said Professor Magnus Langseth at SIMLab.

”This is the result of 20 years of focused strategic work. We realized that concentrating on our activities was important. Our status as a CRI did not appear out of thin air," Langseth stresses. He praised the Centre partners as well as the Research Council of Norway for their interest and brilliant expertise.

Lighter cars use less petrol
Research at SIMLab assists the car manufacturing industry when designing safer and lighter cars. The environmental benefits of using more light metal should not be sneered at. By replacing 200 kilos of steel with 100 kilos of aluminium, Norway’s 1.8 million cars alone would reduce their annual fuel consumption by 135 million litres. The USA has 243 million vehicles on the roads. If they were 100 kilos lighter, the Americans would reduce atmospheric emissions considerably as 18.2 billion litres of petrol would be saved every year. Using 1 tonne of iron to transport a person weighing 70-80 kilos is not very eco-friendly.

It is difficult to change older cars, but every year about 50 million new cars are produced on a world basis. Light metals in these cars will significantly reduce the energy needed for transport.

“Besides, recycling aluminium requires far less energy compared with other materials,” Professor Langseth points out.


Protecting soldiers in war zones
Protection of structures used for defence purposes is also an area of research, as light metals are entering the military sector. SIMLab has helped develop the world’s first bullet-proof aluminium container that will protect soldiers and equipment against splinters and explosions in extreme war situations. Traditionally, these containers have been protected by steel or concrete, which is very heavy, or by ceramics and composites, which are very expensive.

The new splint-proof containers are much lighter and provide protection that is just as good and perhaps even better than now. The containers have an outer shell of aluminium cavity profiles filled with a cheap mass such as sand or gravel. After the SIMLab tests, twelve centimetre-thick concrete slabs can be replaced by three centimetre thick, highly energy-absorbing aluminium plates. This solution has attracted attention even outside NATO.

”The increase in terrorist actions in recent years forces us to rethink personal safety in modern society. Safety precautions permeate both the infrastructure and the products around us. The terror threat has expanded the safety problem," claims the SIMLab director.

Will build knowledge
Apart from the close and successful cooperation with SINTEF, Hydro Aluminium, and leading car manufacturers, SIMLab has major public partners in the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, and the Norwegian Defence Estates Agency.

”It is the industrial locomotives that are conducting research in Norway today," said Magnus Langseth. But small and medium-sized enterprises need research to develop, even though they may not have the money or the know-how to do so on their own. Building up a technology platform with general application at the Centre, will therefore benefit large parts of industry in the longer term.

This technology platform is a main goal for SIMLab, and this platform will provide the development frame for safe and cost-effective structures. The platform is built on four pillars:

  • Materials: Development of improved quantitative constitutive models and failure criteria for large-scale analyses as well as identification methods
  • Solution techniques: Establishment of accurate and robust solution techniques for simulation of impact problems
  • Structures: Investigation of fundamental response mechanisms of generic components and structures as well as the behaviour and modelling of joints. This research area will serve as a link between ‘Materials’, ‘Solution techniques’ and ‘Demonstrators’.
  • Demonstrators: Selection of demonstrators in close cooperation with user partners. The interaction between the activities denoted ‘Basic Research’ and ‘Demonstrators’ is crucial with respect to validation and possible refinement of the technology developed at the Centre.

SIMLab will deal with aluminium extrusions and plates, aluminium and magnesium castings, high-strength steels and polymers.

Using people where they are best
In addition to the practical application of results in cooperation with its partners, SIMLab strongly emphasizes the dissemination of research results through publication in international journals and at conferences.

”Since 1999, the group has published more than 80 papers in international journals with peer review, and more than 100 papers have been presented at international conferences,” states Magnus Langseth. He claims SIMLab’s strength lies in recognizing the necessity of letting people do what they are good at: some do more research than others, some teach, others take care of administrative tasks.

”Industry demands results fast, which is why we opted for a good and proper balance between engineers and researchers – based on our experience with project-based research. Industry sends us researchers, while our doctoral candidates join the enterprises. This is invaluable interaction,” adds Langseth.

”We do not educate engineers with master’s and doctoral degrees just for fun! If industry comes to us with their problems, we have the people to solve them,” he states.

There is a lot to support Professor Langseth’s ideas about the importance of the distribution of work both internally and in cooperation with partners from research institutes, industry, and the authorities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims that SIMLab is the best European centre in its field.


SIMLab: Structural Impact Laboratory:

The objective of the Centre is to develop a technology platform for the development of safe and cost-effective structures. Central research priorities include the ability of light structures to withstand impact loads and collisions.

Host institution:
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Research Centre Director:
Professor Magnus Langseth, Department of Structural Engineering, NTNU

Research partner:

Corporate partners:
Hydro Aluminium, BMW, Renault, and Audi.

Public partners:
The Norwegian Public Roads Administration and The Norwegian Defence Estates Agency

Preliminary budget:
NOK 26 million per annum for 8 years (EUR 3.2 million/USD 4 million)

In total, NOK 208 million over the next 8 years (EUR 25.6 million/USD 32 million)


Doctoral candidates:
16 man-years

4 man-years

SINTEF researchers:
16 man-years

NTNU professors:
5 man-years

NTNU engineers:
3 man-years

Hydro Aluminium:
6 man-years

The Norwegian Public Roads Administration:
2 man-years

The Norwegian Defence Estates Agency:
2 man-years

1 man-year

1 man-year

1 man-year

Professor Magnus Langseth
Department of Structural Engineering, NTNU
Richard Birkelands vei 1 A
NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway.

Tel. (+47) 73 59 47 82

Centre for Research-based Innovation (CRI):
The establishment of the Centres for Research-based Innovation emphasizes Norway’s long-term prioritizing of R&D for the business sector. In 2006, a total of 14 Centres were established.

The main objective for the Centres for Research-based Innovation is to enhance the capability of the business sector to innovate by focusing on long-term research based on forging close alliances between research-intensive enterprises and prominent research groups. (In the long run this basic research will also benefit small and middle-sized enterprises that lack their own research departments.) The total budget for the 14 CRIs will amount to NOK 2 billion over the next eight years. Here the contribution from the Research Council of Norway is NOK 1 billion. The host institution and partners contribute NOK 500 million each.