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International Trade Fair for Die Casting: Technology, Processes, Products

18 - 20 January 2022 // Nuremberg, Germany

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E-Mobility shakes up status quo in automotive production

Structural components have become significantly more important in the automotive industry – and the trend is to make parts bigger and bigger. Bühler’s Carat is a response.
Structural components have become significantly more important in the automotive industry – and the trend is to make parts bigger and bigger. Bühler’s Carat is a response. // © Bild: Bühler

The internal combustion engine has been stamped with an expiration date. As of 2026, Audi plans to be the first carmaker in Germany to stop producing any new IC models – as CEO Markus Duesmann said at a management meeting, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Daimler too wants to start putting some of its planned new battery-powered models on the market in 2024, a year ahead of the original schedule, or so Manager Magazin reports. The carmaker will be discontinuing the equivalent models with internal combustion engines. BMW, on the other hand, has no clear plans to get out of IC technology in most of the 140 countries where its cars are sold.

This is the manufacturers’ response to the EU’s intensified requirements for climate protection – which call for carmakers to cut their emissions as much as 60 percent by 2030. On the other hand, 2025 is the date that Norway set long ago for all new passenger cars and transport vehicles sold there to be zero-emissions. In Germany, anxiety in the automotive industry is widespread – especially in view of the upcoming legislative period and the Green Party’s potential first-time run for the chancellorship.

Toy cars as a production role model

Tesla, the e-car pioneer that bears significant responsibility for the change, has now become the highest-valued vehicle corporation in the world. The VDA, Germany’s Automotive Industry Association, may be posting warnings about job cuts in the automotive supply industry, but unlike the long-established carmakers, Tesla can start from scratch – with no existing production infrastructure that has to be reconfigured, and at dizzying speed to boot. Two patents the company has applied for hint at the future of car making. First of all, the battery – one of an e-car’s most expensive and massive subassemblies – is to be incorporated as an integral part of the load-bearing vehicle structure. CEO Elon Musk compares the concept with aircraft in which the wings are now used as fuel tanks. Second, the chassis is to be boiled down to as few cast structural parts as possible. “With our giant casting machines, we are literally trying to make full-size cars in the same way that toy cars are made,” he wrote on Twitter.

So in line with that thinking, the rear underbody of Tesla’s Model Y will be cast as a single, massive piece. With an injection speed of 10 meters per second, Tesla can cast 40-45 units an hour. That’s 1,000 rear frames a day. In the previous Model 3, the rear underbody group is made up of 70 different metal parts that have to be laboriously produced and welded together. The new unibody design is claimed not only to reduce weight significantly, but to be safer – a single cast structural part is supposed to be significantly better at absorbing impact in an accident.

The new die casting machines to be used for the purpose are as big as a house and are made by Italian manufacturer Idra, which has hitherto been supplying Tesla with smaller models of the same kind, themselves already known as “Giga Presses.” It takes up to 24 flatbeds to transport the individual components of the machines. Installation – quite apart from the large initial investment – requires an appropriate building and foundation, a higher melting capacity per machine, and different crane equipment. Nevertheless, the expenditure is expected to pay off – the price per rear underbody unit is projected to be cut by 40 percent overall. Idra also says its machine is 40 percent more energy-efficient, all in all takes up 30 percent less space in the factory, and saves investing in robots and tools. Robots, Musk has most recently announced, are obsolete anyway.

Gigantic machines reform die casting

It’s not really a surprising development. Machine builders have been watching a steady trend toward larger die casting machines for years now (see graphic). Martin Lagler is head of product management at Bühler, Idra’s direct competitor, and says both companies have long had designs for large die casting machines that they weren’t able to build until now. “The designer at an OEM won’t design components for a machine that doesn't exist. And if there are no components we can’t make a machine. Now the chicken-or-the-egg question has finally been solved. And Tesla certainly plays a big part in that.”

It was only Tesla’s radical approach to innovation and its CEO’s appetite for risk that have made it possible, Lagler says, to shake up the decades-long status quo in automotive production. He notes, “Classic OEMs are often trapped in their structures. The new startups can move much faster and more agilely. We see that not just at Tesla, but also in the e-mobility scene developing in Asia.”

E-drive proved its legitimacy long ago

Yet the transformation to e-mobility will affect far more companies than carmakers and their suppliers alone. Just recently, several hundred e-scooters were discovered at the bottom of the Rhine River – thrown in by passers-by over the years. That report came from the WDR broadcasting channel, which also pointed to the victorious advance of e-bikes and e-scooters that has surged through European metropolises practically overnight. The humming e-drive, whether in a car or some other mode of transportation, proved its legitimacy long ago, at least in the big cities.

It certainly benefits die casting company Stihl Magnesium-Druckguss, which makes housings for e-bike drives. The company expects its production volume to double within the next two years. Which is why just recently, Stihl announced it would invest some EUR 16 million in production installations and infrastructure. The market for e-scooters and the like, it notes, is part of a new solution for individual transportation in major cities. “And for that you also need large quantities of lightweight components with a good cost situation. That’s the die casting industry’s ace in the hole,” says Hartmut Fischer, the company’s managing director. He has also noticed a change on the customer end. “Each day, it seems like a new startup for battery systems gets founded. These new companies are experts in their field, but they don’t have much experience with casting magnesium. They need development partners, and that will be our advantage.”

Climate-neutrality needs a global approach

Just last May, at the Digital Summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the German automotive industry against becoming an “extended workbench” of IT companies. And with that, she put a finger right on the industry’s sore spot: low margins, immense investment amounts, and the high price of energy are simply making it difficult to try out new ideas in Germany. On top of that, there are the taxes to assist renewable energy and reduce CO2, and the obligation to transform existing production facilities in climate-neutral ways. As justified and important as these requirements are, they need a common global approach. Fischer believes government has a responsibility to avert inequality: “If another country, for instance one in Eastern Europe, can produce more cheaply with higher emissions, we won’t have gained a thing in global terms. This is where government has to help get equal operating conditions for everyone.”

The tech industry, on the other hand, is off to a flying start on every continent – a position that Germany’s automotive industry and its export-blockbuster internal combustion cars had held for decades. But pressure from the population, science and government has grown enormously. The technological lead that Germany was long able to rely on so complacently has been lost, at the latest to big competitors like Tesla, but also to small, agile tech startups. The e-wave calls for a transformation in the global die casting industry. The last one to make a move amid this kind of paradigm change will not usually be the winner. It’s time to respond – as has been urged all too often by now.

Tesla hasn’t worried much about that so far. It’s true that the starting date for the gigafactory in Berlin has been postponed because of unfamiliar bureaucratic obstacles, but another reason was also announced – the company now says it also wants to integrate its own battery production unit. On top of that, in a 2019 patent application, the company mentioned four large die casting machines that together are supposed to produce an entire aluminum frame for a Tesla vehicle. Since Tesla’s applications for the German gigafactory show groupings of four of the machines close together, there’s now speculation as well that the new plant will already put the complete casting process into operation for making the Model Y. By the end of this year, punctually after the Bundestag elections, the first e-cars are supposed to roll out the factory doors.

Machine builders have been watching a steady trend toward larger die casting machines for years. (Graphic: Bühler)

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