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Lightweight design is a key technology

Frankfurt, Monday, April 18, 2016 – Lightweight design is essential for a resource-saving, energy-efficient environment. By 2020, lightweight design around the world is expected to total EUR 140 billion for the transport sector alone, with growth rates of seven to eight percent. With this in mind, VDMA has established the Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies. Mechanical engineers and representatives from user and supplier industries use this platform to exchange information and ideas on opportunities, technologies and materials for lightweight design. VDMA hears from some of the experts of lightweight design in a series of interviews. 

Interview with Matthias Graf, Head of Technology and Business Development – Business Unit Composites at Dieffenbacher GmbH and member of the Board of the Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies.

Lightweight design has long been an issue in the aviation industry. Why is the automotive industry now also using lightweight technologies?

Matthias Graf: Lightweight design has played a role in the automotive industry for many years too. For example, Audi was driving innovation in lightweight design back in the late 1990s with its Aluminum Space Frame design, which was implemented in the A8 and A2 models. But the real breakthrough didn't come until 2010, triggered by the growing discussion about the EU Regulation on reducing CO2 emissions, with its strict thresholds for 2020 and 2030 and the associated financial penalties. There was also a focus on resource efficiency in general, in terms of both energy and materials. There is a shortage of certain materials. When parts become lighter, it typically means that less material is needed. That improves resource efficiency.

How much potential for lightweight design does a car offer?

Graf: A huge amount. Around 22 percent of the fuel consumption of a modern vehicle can be attributed to its weight. That is where lightweight design comes in. Rolling resistance, aerodynamics and drive technology are also important topics. Every component has to contribute its part. A lot has already been achieved in aerodynamics, so the opportunities for improvement here are limited. Lightweight design, on the other hand, is just getting started. An incredible amount has already been achieved since 2010. For example, we have succeeded in automating the production process for CFRP components and bringing it into large series production.

Lightweight design is the subject of a great deal of discussion in Germany. Is it the same elsewhere?

Graf: Developments in and applications of lightweight design are German achievements. This was mainly driven by CO2 regulation and the recognition that a paradigm shift is necessary. BMW's decision to build the i3 electric car in a great extent from CFRP makes the company a key driver of this technology, but other German automotive manufacturers have also made progress in this field, albeit on a much smaller scale. They are joined by mechanical engineering companies like Dieffenbacher, who have picked up on this topic in order to establish the production machinery for it and bring it to the market. There has been very productive collaboration between automotive, machine builders and material production companies such as SGL Carbon and leading research institutes such as LCC and Fraunhofer ICT.

How big do you think the global market opportunities are for lightweight technology?

Graf: The chance of exporting what we have achieved is enormous. Already we are seeing interest in automotive-oriented industries, for example in the USA, Japan and Korea. The European and American directives affect more than just the domestic industry. We live in a globalized world and automotive producers are forced to meet the directives in their sales markets. All of us therefore have a great interest in using lightweight technologies here, too.

What does this mean for Dieffenbacher today?

Graf: We are seeing a growing market, especially in export. Lightweight design is a key technology that will lead to improved products in many fields. We believe that this trend will continue, although the growth forecasts of recent years were a little too euphoric and the situation is calming down in Germany at the moment. We will see more and more lightweight design applications. That doesn't only have to mean fiber composites – it could also be lightweight metal structures and increasingly also hybrid structures, in which the properties of the materials are combined in a useful way. I believe that mixed structures, that provide the right material in the right place, are the future of automotive construction. Hybrid lightweight design also offers a great deal of potential for driving functional integration forward.

Does the fact that foreign automotive manufacturers did not have to invest in the development of lightweight design and are now able to buy the components off the shelf put them at a financial advantage?

Graf: Automotive companies that enter the field of lightweight construction later will

initially have a much easier time. They benefit from the status quo that has been achieved and can buy a Dieffenbacher system, for example, and use it to produce CFRP parts. But these companies will still have to convert their internal processes. They have to learn how to handle the material, get to know its properties and find out how to work with it. Those who already have this expertise can begin to think about the next steps. They have a better chance of staying one step ahead on the market in the long term.

What are the next steps?

Graf: We certainly cannot say that all work is done. Lightweight design remains a young technology. Compared to steel, the entire group of tools is still very new, so we need to continue working flat out on improvements, for example on improving the efficiency of the processes. We in Germany need to make sure that we do not stand still.

What would happen then?

Graf: We would risk of being overtaken by others. It would not be the first time. The Japanese began the development of carbon fibers very early. Although they still dominate fiber production today, they have never managed to transfer their expertise to broad applications. If they had remained active and innovative, the Japanese could be world leaders today. Now we in Germany are the pioneers of lightweight design, and we need to make sure we stay there. I hope that lightweight design does not suffer the same fate as the domestic solar industry did. The German solar industry was also a pioneer, but competitors caught up and today most solar cells are produced in China.

CFRP components are much more expensive than those made from other materials. Do they not run the risk of being overshadowed by other lightweight solutions?

Graf: Carbon fiber plastics have the highest potential in lightweight construction. I am certain that improving component engineering will allow us to exploit the benefits better. Reducing material losses and making the processes more efficient also provide significant potential. The material prices are often only compared per kilogram, leading to a devastating result. But it is a very different picture if one considers the costs from the point of view of the function performed, the secondary savings due to function integration, for example, and the savings created by the lower weight in the usage phase. I believe that we will succeed in cutting the costs in half for a produced component again over a period of perhaps ten years.

Responsible for the content of this press release: VDMA- Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies

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VDMA- Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies
Lyoner Strasse 18
60528 Frankfurt am Main
Germany
+49 69 6603-1932
+49 69 6603-2932

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