Material Technology Is Crucial for Industry Transformation
The automotive industry’s adoption of e-mobility and sustainability will only be possible through constant innovation in lightweight materials, copper alloys, high-performance polymers and cleaner fuels, agreed industry experts.
“The industry must aim for a holistic approach, paying attention to all the different aspects of car manufacturing, from gasoline savings, advanced engine lubricants and green tires to coatings and other parts. Reducing weight while improving design is the challenge. We try to understand the market’s needs by listening closely to customers,” said Martín Toscano, President, Evonik Industries de México.
The automotive industry is experiencing transformative changes due to connectivity advances, automation, data analysis and the rise of new mobility services. Materials are the core competence of the automotive manufacturing industry, according to the Center of Automotive Research (CAR): “No matter how high-tech the final product is—production always starts with basic raw materials.”
Over the past 100 years, the industry has produced vehicle bodies en masse, most of them made predominantly from steel. Currently, manufacturers are experimenting with alternative materials such as aluminum, magnesium, plastics and polymer composites. According to CAR, the average vehicle body in the US fleet today is 65 percent steel, 13 percent aluminum, 4 percent magnesium, 6 percent plastic and polymer composites and a variable percentage of glass, adhesives, sealers and foam.
Copper is one of the materials that will grow in demand in the near future, said Saulo Guzmán, General Manager, Wieland Group. ICE vehicles usually incorporate about 21.8 kg of copper, HEVs 39.9 kg and EVs 83 kg, he added. “EVs require a lot of copper. So far, it is used in motors, batteries, inverters, wiring and fuses. In addition, it is also important for EV infrastructure, such as chargers, wires for distribution, electrical panels and charging cables.”
EVs require new copper alloys composed of “more specific materials, not the regular copper we used to have in the past,” said Guzmán. Today’s copper requires higher current resistance, while mechanically holding the form. By 2027, the demand for copper will reach 1.74 million tons each year, he added. “It is an entire material revolution. Copper is the new gold.”
Although the industry is shifting toward EVs, the transition still requires time and lightweighting has played an important role to increase vehicle efficiency and performance. These two topics have been discussed for decades but are now paired with the concept of sustainability, highlighted Vishwas Shankar, Director, Frost & Sullivan. In 2018, the average car weighed 1.85 tons, of which 55 percent was cast iron and steel, 11 percent plastic, 9 percent aluminum alloys, 7 percent rubber, 3 percent glass, 1 percent non-ferrous alloys and 14 percent represents other materials, reported MBN.
Chemical giants such as Evonik have continuously supported OEMs and Tier 1s’ lightweighting goals. “Within our company, we are always looking for more sustainable and lightweight materials. We work closely and listen to our clients,” said Toscano.
Innovation, advanced materials and nanotechnology are vital to move the industry forward, said Alex Elías Zúñiga, Research Group Leader of Nanotech and Device Designing, Tec de Monterrey. Academia is driving research, playing an important role in the industry transformation and must be partnered with industry and government to take the results from lab scale to mass production, he added.
“Tec de Monterrey launched the Institute of Advanced Materials for Sustainable Manufacturing, where advanced materials are discovered, designed, manufactured, certified and scaled up from lab to mass production, aiming to develop lightweighting components for both the automotive and aerospace industries to produce less CO2 emissions,” said Zúñiga.
Heavy Vehicle Lightweighting
The heavy vehicle industry has been exploring lightweight materials for years, especially for the bus and coach sectors. Electrification is not penetrating the coach sector at the same rate as the urban segment due to weight, said Juan de Dios Gómez, Director General, Irizar México.
“It is all about weight. How to demand less capacity per hour for batteries. We thought about the all materials. [Using] aluminum to replace steel, reducing thickness of the system with a more robust but less heavy body. We have also replaced the wood used in bus floors with polymers,” said Gómez.
The automotive industry of the present and future will continue to rely on material technology. For that reason, the sector requires a holistic approach to understand the needs of ICE vehicles and EVs, taking into account that copper will play an increasingly relevant role, concluded Shankar.