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Hybrid Lightweight Technologies News

No future without lightweight construction

Frankfurt, February 10, 2016 – Lightweight construction is essential for a resource-saving, energy-efficient environment. Just like aviation, the automotive construction sector is increasingly using lightweight construction solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. By 2020, lightweight construction 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 construction. Over the next few months, VDMA will hear from some of the exponents of lightweight construction on a loosely scheduled basis. 

An interview with Peter Egger, Head of the Technology Centre for Lightweight Composites at the injection molding company ENGEL AUSTRIA. Egger is also the Chair of VDMA's Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies.

Mr. Egger, you have been elected Chair of VDMA's new Working Group Hybrid Lightweight Technologies. What do you see as its most important function?

Egger: The group's predecessor was the VDMA Forum Composite Technology, in which mechanical engineering companies predominantly discussed plant and equipment technologies for lightweight construction using fiber composite materials. The nature of the group meant that any findings made there were limited, as it was mostly made up of mechanical engineers. Our new Working Group covers the entire spectrum of lightweight construction – both the supplier industries and application sectors, and of course every conceivable material and combination thereof. As a result, we can identify the requirements of the market better. After all, the goal is to make the very best of things and examine everything without blinders. 

How would you define lightweight construction?

Egger: Lightweight construction essentially means being able to replace a heavy material with a lighter one, while maintaining sufficient properties. Most recently, the focus has been on lightweight construction using continuous fiber reinforcement. The idea here is to use directed fiber structures to create a structure with the ideal mechanical design, for example using carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). BMW produces the bodywork of its i Series this way. In addition to carbon fibers, glass fibers are also an option. When it comes to plastics, thermoplastic systems are increasingly being considered alongside the thermoset polymers used in the CFRP segment. These include organic sheets – fiber composite semi-finished products that are heated, compression molded and then back-molded. As well as lightweight construction using composites, there are also hybrid technologies in which steel or aluminum, for example, are combined with plastics.

Lightweight construction has been used in aircraft construction for many years. How long has it been an issue in automotive construction?

Egger: Companies have been looking at lightweight construction in the automotive industry for a long time, too. If they hadn't, modern vehicles would still be a lot heavier than they are. Modern vehicles now offer a lot more safety technology, more electronics and greater comfort, yet their weight has not increased anything near as much. Statutory provisions are also creating significant pressure to produce lighter cars. CO2 emissions per car are to be reduced to an average of 95 grams per kilometer across the EU by 2020, with penalties for those who do not comply. Depending on the amount by which the specifications are exceeded, the fines could amount to around a thousand euros per vehicle. That is what is really driving companies to invest more in lightweight construction.

What are the biggest challenges facing lightweight construction?

Egger: One of the biggest challenges in lightweight construction is the enormous variety of possible solutions. There is a huge range of different materials and numerous process technologies. That makes it difficult to determine how and from what a component is best constructed and produced. In addition, designers do not yet have much experience in dealing with the new materials. For example, sheet metal has the same properties in all directions, which makes it easier to use in designs.   Fiber composite materials offer the advantage of directed properties; these can be used in an optimized way, but of course only if you know how to deal with them.

In many cases, there is also the problem of integrating the new lightweight components into an existing production system. Those who want to enter established production structures run the risk of a drop in productivity.

Finally, there are also problems in joining technology. For example, a fiber composite material cannot simply be welded to a sheet metal structure – you have to look at whether the components should be glued or screwed together.

Which other customer groups at Engel use lightweight construction?

Egger: We are seeing interest in fiber composite components from the teletronics industry. There are opportunities to use the technology in the sports sector, with some excellent examples in soccer shoes. The technology can also be used in the construction industry. But the greatest momentum comes from the automotive industry. We tend to think in large batches. We see the advantage for us in the fact that we can, as we do in injection molding, integrate the entire periphery of a system into our machine control as needed, allowing us to store and provide as much data as possible centrally. This enables a high level of productivity and quality. It is not so much of an issue for small batches.

What is the Engel Technology Center for Lightweight Composites focusing on at the moment?

Egger: We have been looking at how to process organic sheets for a while now, but we are now going a step further and working on how to process composite solutions with directed properties. This is known as UD tape processing. UD stands for unidirectional. In organic sheets, the fibers are arranged in two directions like a woven fabric. In unidirectional tapes, the fibers all face in one direction and are then impregnated with plastic. We are also looking at reactive processes, like high-pressure RTM and SMC pressing.

Is lightweight construction per se sustainable?

Egger: You always have to consider the chain as a whole. When a component becomes lighter, moving it takes less energy. But you also have to set up the production process for the lighter components well from an energy point of view. If too much energy is consumed in production, the overall result is worse when it comes to sustainability. The fact that energy is as cheap as it is at the moment is actually counterproductive for lightweight construction. But this will become less of an issue when energy prices rise again – and they will.

At Engel, our work with fiber composite materials focuses significantly on thermoplastic systems, which perform outstandingly when it comes to recycling. The material can very often be regranulated and reused in an injection molding process. Joining technology is also easier, as a thermoplastic can be injected or welded onto another thermoplastic.

Lightweight construction has been discussed for such a long time. Has this kind of technology now finally made its breakthrough?

Egger: Efficient lightweight construction will be essential in resolving the issues of the future. There have been a lot of potential solutions so far. We are now entering a phase in which we need to filter out the most effective. The new VDMA Working Group's approach of taking a broader view of the entire field is the right one. There will be no breakthrough that leads to fast implementation. There is no revolution in lightweight construction, but evolution.

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

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