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Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

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Composite Structures
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/compstruct

Lightweight design and crash analysis of composite frontal impact energy

absorbing structures
Jovan Obradovic a, Simonetta Boria b,, Giovanni Belingardi a

Department of Mechanics (DIMEC), Politecnico di Torino, Duca degli Abruzzi, 24, 10129 Torino, Italy
School of Science and Technology, University of Camerino, Madonna delle Carceri, 9, 62032 Camerino, Italy

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Available online 2 September 2011
Lightweight design
CFRP tubes
Impact attenuator

a b s t r a c t
Carbon bre composites have shown to be able to perform extremely well in the case of a crash and are
being used to manufacture dedicated energy-absorbing components, both in the motor sport world and
in constructions of aerospace engineering. While in metallic structures the energy absorption is achieved
by plastic deformation, in composite ones it relies on the material diffuse fracture. The design of composite parts should provide stable, regular and controlled dissipation of kinetic energy in order to keep the
deceleration level as least as possible. That is possible only after detailed analytical, experimental and
numerical analysis of the structural crashworthiness.
This paper is presenting the steps to follow in order to design specic lightweight impact attenuators.
Only after having characterised the composite material to use, it is possible to model and realise simple
CFRP tubular structures through mathematical formulation and explicit FE code LS-DYNA. Also, experimental dynamic tests are performed by use of a drop weight test machine.
Achieving a good agreement of the results in previously mentioned analyses, follows to the design of
impact attenuator with a more complex geometry, as a composite nose cone of the Formula SAE racing
car. In particular, the quasi-static test is performed and reported together with numerical simulation of
dynamic stroke. In order to initialize the collapse in a stable way, the design of the composite impact
attenuator has been completed with a trigger which is consisted of a very simple smoothing (progressive
reduction) of the wall thickness. Initial requirements were set in accordance with the 2008 Formula SAE
rules and they were satised with the nal conguration both in experimental and numerical crash
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
In order to ensure the drivers safety in case of high-speed
crashes, special impact structures are designed to absorb the race
cars kinetic energy and limit the deceleration acting on the human
body. In current automotive development, in order to improve
their crashworthiness and increase stiffness to weight ratio, composite material is introduced with the scope of optimisation of
car body components. In fact, composites have a greater capacity
to absorb energy compared to metals, mainly due to the different
modes of failure that govern energy absorption.
Crash investigations on composite structures reported in the literature are mainly based on experimental test analysis of small
plates submitted to bending impact and on simple bars, of circular
Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: jovan.obradovic@polito.it (J. Obradovic), simonetta.boria@unicam.it (S. Boria), giovanni.belingardi@polito.it (G. Belingardi).
URLs: http://www.dimec.polito.it (J. Obradovic), http://www.sst.unicam.it (S.
Boria), http://www.dimec.polito.it (G. Belingardi).
0263-8223/$ - see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

or rectangular cross section, of prismatic or tapered shape, submitted to axial impact [17]. Also, a couple of analytical models have
been proposed to predict the energy absorption characteristics of
thin-walled tubular structures [1114]. Furthermore, some studies
can be found in the literature concerning composite crash-boxes
for automotive applications, but they are still few and do not cover
all aspects of composite structure modelling [810,1619].
An important aspect of crashworthiness research is the validation of analytical and numerical models for accurate simulation
of structural response to crash impacts. Indeed, they constitute
the necessary tools for the designer to study the response of the
specic structures to dynamic crash loads, to predict global
response to impact, to estimate probability of injury and to evaluate numerous crash scenarios, not economically feasible with full
scale crash testing.
This study covers the steps to follow during the design of a specic impact attenuator. After the mechanical characterisation of
the CFRP material, it is possible to calibrate the numerical material
model, to properly design and to perform experimental tests on
thin-walled tubular structures. The good correlation between


J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430





crash load efciency (dened as the ratio between average and peak load)
average load
peak load
axial average strength
specic energy absorption
wall thickness
ultimate stress in uni-axial tension
matrix shear strength
mean radius in B
axial length of tube
thickness of the plies bending outside the shell radius
thickness of the plies bending inside the shell radius
length of central crack
side length of the wedge inscribed to the external bent

experimental and numerical test represents efcient modelling of

composite laminates. Also, the numerical simulation has been coupled with a simplied analytical model, able to predict the energy
absorption of thin-walled composite structures with circular cross
section. The thin-walled tubular structures made of composite
material, are used as frontal impact attenuator, applied for urban
vehicles body-in-white. Instead, in the case of racing cars, it is usually used the conical absorbing structure [20].
Therefore, it is also presented the development, quasi static
testing and numerical simulation of impact event for the lightweight frontal safety structure of Formula SAE vehicle, designed
by the Politecnico di Torino team (Fig. 1). The production strategy
of this car consists in a concurrent analytical and experimental
development, from the initial conceptual design and coupon testing, through the stages of element and subcomponent engineering,
to nal component manufacturing.
2. Material characterisation tests
The used carbon bre type material to manufacture thin-walled
cylindrical specimens and the impact attenuator is plain weave
prepreg GG203PIMP530R-42. The matrix type is resin epoxy and
it is developed for automotive sector, in particular for sport application. It is characterised by good impact resistance properties and
quality surface nish and is adapted for high speed cold stamping.
The resin content is 42 3%.
To obtain appropriate input data for the simulation of the composite components and for the validation of the numerical material
model, standard coupon tests were performed at Politecnico di
Torino laboratory. The material characterisation tests were performed in tension, according to ASTM Standard D3039, with the
warp direction aligned with the test direction (0 tests) and also

Fig. 1. The racing car of Polytechnic of Turin season 2008.



side length of the wedge inscribed to the internal bent

cone angle
angle formed by the height and the external side of the
angle formed by the height and the internal side of the
coefcient of friction between frond and platen
coefcient of friction between wedge and fronds
energy due to bending
energy due to hoop strain
energy required for propagation of the central crack
frictional energy
total energy
total displacement

according to ASTM Standard D3518 with bres aligned at 45 to

the test direction. Coupon tests were performed up to material failure; Youngs modulus, Poissons ratio, yield stress and strain in the
warp direction were obtained from the 0 tests, while the shear
properties were extracted from the 45 tests. The at specimens,
used to measure these properties, were made from one ply of prepreg sheet, 200  10 mm2, and composite end tabs were bonded at
each end. Tensile tests were conducted with an electromechanical
Zwick Z100 machine at a crosshead speed of 0.05 mm/s. Two strain
gages were bonded onto one side of the specimen, in order to
acquire longitudinal and transversal strains, respectively.
After the careful analysis, it is noticed that the obtained material characteristics are similar to properties of CFS003/LTM25
carbon-epoxy prepreg. In order to model numerically the appropriate material card with all necessary properties that are signicantly inuencing structural response, the obtained experimental
test data are completed with material compression parameters of
CFS003/LTM25 carbon-epoxy prepreg that are available in the literature. Although this material is twill weave, in numerical simulation is modelled as plain weave. The mechanical properties, for
considered material, are reported in Table 1.
3. Denition of energy absorbing structures
After the characterisation of the material, it is possible to constitute three complementary phases: the rst one is the denition of a
simplied analytical model that reproduces, as faithfully as

Table 1
Material properties for used prepreg.

Composite CFS003/LTM25
carbon-epoxy fabric prepreg

Young modulus in bre longitudinal direction
Young modulus in transverse direction
Poissons ratio
Shear modulus12
Shear modulus23
Shear modulus31
Longitudinal tensile strength
Transverse tensile strength
Longitudinal compressive strength
Transverse compressive strength
Compressive strength in direction 12
In plane shear strength

1.45  103 g/mm3

53.6 GPa
55.2 GPa
2.85 GPa
1.425 GPa
2.85 GPa
0.618 GPa
0.652 GPa
0.642 GPa
0.556 GPa
0.084 GPa
0.084 GPa


J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

possible, the crash phenomenon by an energetic point of view, the

second is the implementation of a numerical model able to discretize the structure and impose testing conditions using nite elements and the last one is the execution of experimental tests in
order to verify the effective brittle failure and compare the results
It is good to analyse the impact phenomenon from the three
points of view initially for simple tubular structures before to
proceed with a more complex geometry, such as the Formula SAE
impact attenuator.
In particular it is performed analysis on cylindrical tubes,
200 mm high with different thickness and radius values, subjected
to dynamical axial stroke.
Furthermore, in order to meet the competition requirements of
Formula SAE 2008, the attenuator must guarantee specic performances in terms of average deceleration values and minimum
acceptable dimensions during impact. Moreover the assembly of
the sacricial structure is subjected to the following conditions
according to Ref. [15]:
 The impact attenuator must be installed in front of the
 It must be at least 200 mm long (along the main axis of the
frame), 200 mm wide and 100 mm high.
 It must not penetrate the front bulkhead in case of impact.
 It must be attached to the front bulkhead by welding, or at least,
four bolts (M8, grade 8.8).
 It must guarantee safety in case of off-axis and off-centre
The analysed energy absorber (Fig. 2) consists of a truncated
pyramidal structure with an almost rectangular section. The pyramidal structure makes it possible to obtain a major stability during
progressive crushing, while the rectangular section has rounded
edges to avoid stress concentrations. The design of sacricial structure has been completed with a trigger which consists in a smoothing (progressive reduction) of the wall thickness in order to reduce
the resisting section locally. This trigger is intended both to reduce
the value of the force peak and to initialize structure collapse in a
stable way.
Finally, it is decided to design three different wall thickness
zones, presented in Fig. 2 by three zones. In order to analyse the effect of different attenuator thickness on resistance properties, the
sacricial structure has been produced in two versions as reported
Version 1:

 Second zone length = 70 mm, laminate thickness = 1.3 mm

simulated with six plies.
 Third zone length = 100 mm, laminate thickness = 1.4 mm
simulated with seven plies.
Version 2:
 First zone length = 30 mm, laminate thickness = 1.68 mm simulated with seven plies.
 Second zone length = 70 mm, laminate thickness = 2.16 mm
simulated with nine plies.
 Third zone length = 100 mm, laminate thickness = 2.4 mm
simulated with 10 plies.
4. Analytical and numerical modelling
4.1. Analytical model of cylindrical tubes
It is seen that the crushing mechanism of composite shells is
quite complex. Little work has been done on the analytical formulation of their deformation behaviour in progressive collapse [11
In this section is reported the analytical model for a generic conical shell subjected to impact; the expression obtained can be
reduced to get that for the cylindrical shells, simply by modifying
the cone angle. In particular the model works from the energetic
point of view, considering all the failure modes that occur during
the crush phenomenon.
Fig. 3 shows the conguration of internal fracture mechanism in
the crash zone for a conical shell.
Bibliographic analysis shows that the energy terms involved
during the crushing process of a composite shell are:
 the work required to bend the bre layers which bend both
inside and outside the shell radius



r0 t21 a1 RB ls1 sin / r0 t22 a2 RB ls2 sin /

 the work required to strain the material in the circumferential


W h pr0 ls1 t 1 sin /  sin/  a1  pr0 ls2 t 2 sin/ a2  sin /

 the work required to crack the matrix in the vertical direction of
the shell wall

 First zone length = 30 mm, laminate thickness = 0.8 mm simulated with four plies.

Fig. 2. FE model of produced composite impact attenuator.

Fig. 3. Conguration of internal fracture mechanism in the crush zone.


J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

W m 2prm ls1 sin a1 t1 RB
sin / 2prm ls2

 sin a2 t 2 RB
sin /

 the work required to overcome the frictional forces among the

fronds, the wedge and the platen

W f s l1
 r0 ls1 sin a1 l2 cos a1

r0 ls2 sin a2 l2 cos a2 l2 r0 ls1 ls2

So the total internal energy is given by the sum of the individual

contributions and must be equal to the external loads. Minimising
the mean collapse load respect to the variables is therefore possible to obtain some important information about deformation, such
as the nal stroke of the structure and the absorbed energy.

For the impact attenuator has been followed the same procedure that was used for cylindrical tubes. It is implemented the
rigid wall planar moving forces card with a mass of 300 kg,
which is presenting the obstacle that is impacting the attenuator
with an initial velocity of 7 m/s. The support of the attenuator is
modelled as rigid wall planar, with prescribed friction coefcient
equal to 0.4.
Particular attention was given to the material denition of composites. In particular, for the LS-DYNA library the material types 54
and 55, that implement the Chang-Chang and Tsay-Wu criteria,
were used for modelling of composite tubes and impact attenuator,
thanks to their ability to give a numerical behaviour near to the
experimental ones. To avoid ductile behaviour with folding, it is
important to change the element strength at some point of the collapse evolution. This is obtained thanks to a time-step failure
parameter (TFAIL), that takes a value of 0.8.
5. Experimental quasi-static and dynamic tests

4.2. Finite element analysis

5.1. Experimental dynamic tests on cylindrical tubes
Before manufacturing and testing the cylindrical specimens and
the impact attenuator, FE analyses were performed using the commercial solver LS-DYNA.
The tubes are modelled by four-node shell elements with
BelytschkoTsay formulation. A multi-layered shell is used with
one integration point per layer. To dene composite numerical
model the card PART_COMPOSITE is used. According to this card,
the laminate has a thickness dened by the sum of each individual
layer. Laminate theory is also activated with LAMSHT parameter in

CONTROL_SHELL card, to correct for the assumption of a uniform
constant shear strain through the thickness of the shell. A moving
rigid wall with a nite mass of 294 kg and an initial velocity of
about 4 m/s represents the impacting mass. Master-surface to
slave-node and self contact are dened between the impact mass
and the nodes of the tubes and on the tube surface, respectively.

All the dynamic experimental tests reported in this paper were

performed at the Picchio S.p.A. plant in Ancarano (TE) using a drop
weight test machine with a 6 m free-fall height and a maximum
mass of 413 kg. For the experimental tests on cylindrical tubes
was used an impact mass of 294 kg and an initial velocity of about
4 m/s. During the tests every tube was supported at the bottom
edge on a metallic base with air holes. The acceleration of the mass
and the velocity at impact were measured using an accelerometer
with 180 g full-scale and a photocell, respectively.
All the tubular specimens were manufactured with an outside
chamfer so that the crushing begins in the highly stressed region
at the tip of the chamfer and this develops into a stable crush zone.
After the tests, the diagrams representing the variation of the
acceleration with the time are analysed and ltered with a CFC60

Fig. 4. Deceleration-time diagrams: (a) diameter 80 mm, (b) diameter 50 mm.

Table 2
Experimental crash-tests results.


Impact velocity

deceleration (g)

deceleration (g)

energy (kJ)

Residual height

gc (Faverage/




SEA (kJ/











J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

lter, in accordance with SAE J211.1 (Fig. 4) and some important

parameters for crash resistance characterisation have been computed, such as peak deceleration, average deceleration, absorbed
energy, residual height, stroke efciency, axial average strength
and specic energy absorption (SEA). Values are reported in Table 2.
Moreover for the tube with 50 mm of diameter and 2 mm of
thickness the plots of the velocity and stroke vs. time (Fig. 5a)
and of the measured and theoretical absorbed energy vs. stroke
(Fig. 5b) are reported. Considering the results obtained for value
of SEA of 76 kJ/kg, in Fig. 5b very good agreement can be observed
between the theoretical (dot line) and the measured (thin line)


The tested CFRP tubes have absorbed impact energy by a progressive crushing process, through various combinations of failure
mechanisms (Fig. 6). In particular the specimens have shown two
different crushing modes: splaying with axial splitting and fragmentation with debris compacted inside the tube and preventing
further crushing. However, in all congurations, the residual part
of tubes results perfectly integer.
5.2. Experimental quasi-static tests on impact attenuator
The two competing nose cone designs, as previously discussed,
are tested in quasi-static axial compression. The tests are con-

Fig. 5. Velocity and stroke vs. time (a), measured and theoretical absorbed energy vs. stroke (b).

Fig. 6. Failure modes of the cylindrical tubes tested: (a) diameter 80 mm, (b) diameter 50 mm.

Fig. 7. Quasi-static test: Initial position of attenuator (left) and after the performed test (right).


J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

Fig. 10. Numerical and experimental deceleration-shortening diagram for the

cylindrical tube with diameter 50 mm and thickness 2 mm.
Fig. 8. Quasi-static test: comparison of Force vs. displacement diagram of two

ducted with an electromechanical Zwick Z100 machine at a crosshead speed of 0.5 mm/s. The compression is performed with upper
moving plate and the load is measured by the load cell.
The thinner nose cone (version 1) is tested up to the displacement in axial direction of 100 mm. The structure with thicker wall
(version 2) is tested up to the displacement of 160 mm. The thinner
impact attenuator, at two subsequent stages of the test i.e. before
quasi-static test and after the displacement of 100 mm, is shown
in Fig. 7.
The comparison of force vs. displacement diagram of two different impact attenuator design versions is shown in Fig. 8. It is evident that the trend is the same and the desired smooth curve
behaviour is obtained for both cases. After the initial peak, it is visible the second force peak at the displacement of 30 mm and the
third one at the displacement of about 100 mm. This is because
of the wall thickness change, which is shown in Fig. 2. The wall
thickness change is very sensitive parameter and in order to
decrease force peaks, the difference in ply thickness between different impact attenuator zones should be as less as possible.
6. Comparison between analytical, numerical and experimental
6.1. Cylindrical tubes
After having performed a mesh sensitivity analysis, a uniform
mesh with elements of about 2 mm per side has been chosen. A
sequence of the deformed shapes of a fabric tube (diameter
50 mm and thickness 2 mm) at different simulation times, is
shown in Fig. 9.
The numerical and experimental deceleration vs. shortening
curves for the tube with diameter 50 mm and thickness 2 mm
are compared in Fig. 10, while some crash parameters obtained
from experimental tests are reported together with the analytical
and numerical results in Table 3 for all specimens. As the experi-

mental data, also the numerical ones are ltered with the same lter CFC60.
From the comparison of the results it is evident that the analytical model and FE model are able to simulate the brittle composite
material behaviour with material separation from the specimens
and consequently approximate the absorbed energy and the actual
crushing with good accuracy.
In all cases the difference between analytical, numerical and
experimental results is lower than 12%. The discrepancy between
analytical results and experimental ones is mainly due to the difculty to accurately model the phenomenon of energy absorption
for composite materials. Instead the difference between numerical
results and experimental ones is mainly due to the complexity to
simulate the initialization of the fragmentation phase and defects
in the construction of the tubes.
6.2. Impact attenuator
In the diagram of the Fig. 11, it is shown the evolution of decelerations during the time, calculated by numerical analysis. The rst
peak of the impact attenuator is due to the initialization of structural collapse. The decrease of the initial peak value can be
obtained by a proper modication of impact attenuator structure
that includes crush initialisation triggers. After the initial peak, a
nearly at diagram of the deceleration is obtained as expected.
Also, it is recommended in SAE rules that average deceleration
of the vehicle must not exceed 20 g. This constrain is completely
satised in numerical circumstances.
The force is directly dependent on acceleration, and thats why
the trend of forcedisplacement curves is almost the same. In
Fig. 12 the comparison of force vs. displacement curves is presented, obtained by experimental quasi static tests and crash
dynamic numerical simulations carried out by LS-DYNA code. It
is well visible that the rst critical peak is mostly a numerical problem that does not appear in the experiment. During the quasi static
test, the rst maximum peak of the force is 52 kN. A nearly at diagram of the impact force is obtained, which means a nearly constant value of the deceleration.

Fig. 9. Sequence of deformation and Von Mises stress for tube with 50 mm diameter and 2 mm thickness.


J. Obradovic et al. / Composite Structures 94 (2012) 423430

Table 3
Analytical, numerical and experimental results.

Analytical model

FE model

thickness (mm)

energy (kJ)


energy (kJ)





Experimental test

Error% on crushing


energy (kJ)


Analytical vs. experimental


FE vs. experimental






On the left picture of Fig. 13, it is possible to see the exural

behaviour in the wall of the composite impact attenuator, subjected to quasi-static loading conditions. In particular, this behaviour is well visible after the displacement of 100 mm, which
corresponds to the half of the attenuator length. Results obtained
by numerical simulations performed with the use of LS-DYNA
explicit code, are shown in Fig. 13 on the right picture. It is possible
to notice that the exion of the wall after the displacement of
100 mm during quasi-static test is conrmed also by simulations.

7. Conclusions

Fig. 11. Comparison of decelerations of the attenuator modelled by LS-DYNA.

Fig. 12. Comparison of force vs. displacement curves obtained by LS-DYNA code
and quasi-static experiment.

The present paper developed an analytical, numerical and

experimental research on the energy absorbing composite structures, initially of simple tubular shape and then of more complex
In order to set the appropriate values of the numerical LS-DYNA
models, composite material characterisation tests and tube crushing experiments were performed. The crash-tests were performed
using a drop test machine, measuring the deceleration-time diagram and after integration processes load-shortening trend and
energy absorbed by the structure.
Despite the complexity of the fracture phenomenon, a good
agreement between results has been achieved for simple tubular
structures. The simplied analytical model and the FE model are
able to simulate the brittle composite material behaviour with
material separation from the specimens and consequently approximate the absorbed energy and the actual crushing with an accuracy of about 90%.
Moreover, it is done an analysis of the crashworthiness of the
impact attenuator structure that has been designed for the Formula SAE car. It is manufactured the composite impact attenuator
and subjected to compressive quasi-static loading circumstances.
Conducted experimental analyses shown stable behaviour of the
nose cone structure with at, almost constant force vs. displacement curves, and acceleration limit below 20 g. This value corresponds to the requirements of SAE 2008 rules, as they require
that the solution adopted leads to an average deceleration lower
than 0.2 m/ms2 (20 g).
The explicit FE solver LS-DYNA was able to predict experimental
results regarding both stiffness and progressive collapse mechanism of the impact attenuator. Beside the appropriate choose of
trigger mechanism, the failure criteria was the most important
parameter of the modelling of composite structure in order to predict brittle collapse of the nose cone. Force vs. displacement diagrams conrm that experimental and numerical results are
almost the same.

Fig. 13. Flexion of the attenuators wall subjected to quasi-static compression test
after the displacement of 100 mm-comparison of experimental and numerical

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