Impact of new composite materials on cars of the future

Cars of the future are posing design challenges the automotive industry must face as the selling point shifts from the ultimate driving machine to a comfortable, convenient home on wheels.

In his series on future cars, Ed Bernardon discusses what will happen to today’s cars and the challenges that will come with these new cars. In his introduction, Bernardon explored how today’s cars could meet the same fate as horses. He looked at the new ethical and technical challenges designers will face. And, he pointed out some changes that will certainly disrupt business strategies in the automotive industry.

In the first part of his conversation with Forward Engineering’s Georg Käsmeier, Bernardon and Käsmeier discussed the challenges automotive companies face with lightweight, composite materials. Here, they continue their look at composite materials and also discuss the 3D printed Olli Bus and the impact these kinds of vehicles will have on engineers.

Ed Bernardon: There’s no doubt that we live in interesting times when it comes to the automotive industry; as you mentioned, differential and integrated, mixed materials versus consolidated parts and use of composite [materials] to potentially build intelligence right into the structure.

Recently, you were involved with Local Motors and the Olli bus project, probably one of the most advanced project in this area that’s taking a big step toward what we may see in the future.

Are there any interesting examples you can tell us about from that project that starts to show us where we may be headed in the future? 

Georg Käsmeier: Yeah. If you think about 3D printing and industrial production, if this technique will get developed more and more to a state-of-the-art process, then we’ll for sure be talking about disruptive innovation and a disruptive technology. 

I think the first topic, as I mentioned were more like in the midterm perspective within the next couple of years. In parallel, we’ll see some that there are some disruptive topics coming up. And of course, we also have our eye on that to try to get good feeling when is the time right and how to use these technologies in new, innovative automotive products.

For sure, one of the most potential technique will be 3D printing, as it allows you a lot of design freedom. And it allows you, also, a lot of new ways for producing cars, and also to shorten your development time. This will be a very new topic for the whole value chain, beginning from the first concept draft.

Designers will have to learn how to work with that type of material and that type of process. So, young designers must think completely different for how to design cars, and must also work close with engineers and the technical guys. And, engineers will have to work close with material and process developers.

So, really to get the potential out of this process, it must involve a lot of people different type of people working collaboratively, and this is also what we try to make our customers understand: that working with plastics, that working with new materials is always about sharing ideas, working openly on new ideas. And then you can really get to a new solution.

So, the 3D printing is one of these disruptive technologies. Working with Local Motors was a great experience here to see how we can use that process they invented and they run in their microfactories.

As we supported the development of the Olli bus, it was a great chance, also, to get in touch and to implement this 3D printing process in the car body and a lightweight structure. I think we ended up with a very nice solution and showed what is possible here. 

Image 1.pngThe Olli bus is an example of what’s possible with 3D printing car bodies and lightweight structures.

This is, for sure, another milestone of many other milestones which might come afterwards. It’s always learning from one step to the next and improving a young technology. And there’s still so, so much potential on the material side, on the process side, on the development skills and the software which is needed.

So, this is always working with new materials and processes. It’s always like you feel like an inventor. You have to think about how can we cover our existing tools and development process, which is not state of the art yet, and this is especially what we bring to the table as we have an experienced team and we’re working with new processes and materials – how to come to a point where solutions can get produced and prototyped. This is exactly what we could do with Local Motors. This was a very nice showcase. 

EB: When you see something – a technology like the Olli bus – it certainly builds excitement as to what’s possible. It makes you think, “Someday, maybe I’ll have a 3D printed car.”

What do you think are the barriers that’s going to keep this technology from being widely accepted, say by the large OEMs? How long do you think it takes to go from an initial project like this that starts to prove the technology is viable, to when we’ll start see incorporation of technologies like 3D printing and composite [materials] in cars that all of us drive day-to-day? 

GK: Oh, that’s really a tough question, because talking about timelines with new technologies – I think I have to look in the past.

For example, the last really new material in the automotive industry was the aluminum approach, which started in the 90s and is now still not everywhere. So, it’s getting more and more accepted, but it took at least 20 to 30 years to get to a certain level where you can really say it’s state-of-the-art and every car maker can decide between steel and aluminum.

So, as we understand that producing mass production cars is heavily dependent on long-term investments and the type of mega facilities. They all plan for several generations of cars, so if a technology is set, it’s set for maybe 20 years. So it’s not that easy to jump in with a new technology and expect that in five years, it will be state-of-the-art everywhere. 

Image 2.pngAutomakers could adopt new technologies and composite materials for components of cars first before using them in the whole process.So for sure, we have to think about new technologies. We see all of it with composite materials with a time perspective of maybe 20 to 30 years, which is still fast in comparison to some other industries, like the aerospace or aviation industry. So I think this is a more realistic timeframe.

Of course, always, headed by demonstration projects and some companies who show some innovations and maybe also demonstrated by some components. So maybe we see some 3D printed seats, or maybe we see 3D printed suspension systems if the mechanical properties are in there in the materials.

Maybe we see these types of components first because they can be provided by these suppliers, these T1 suppliers. So the suppliers are more flexible as they are already focused on certain materials and processes than the OEM itself.

So I think it will be, we will see different strategies. One OEM, BMW, decided a few years ago to go with a composite [materials] approach and to build up their internal value chain, internal ecosystem, even working with their own produced carbon fiber. And, other carmakers will decide to work more with the supplier structures, to make cooperation and strategic alliances for new processes. 

So we will see different developments. But the good thing is that the more companies are involved, the faster it will be.

But from my point of view, I think we really have – if we’re talking about mass production car as we understand it today, and settled industries working today to implement a new technology here, I think this will take at least another 20 years, which will still be fast. 

EB: One final question. You’ve had experience certainly as a founder of a car company, and now working with engineers in many, many companies. What advice could you offer to a young engineer, or even an engineer with a large amount of experience with conventional vehicles made out of steel and welding?

What advice could you offer an engineer to open up their minds and help them more easily ramp up and learn how to work in this new automotive environment to utilize some of these new manufacturing methods and materials? What advice could you offer to someone who’s faced with those challenges? 

GK: I think for sure, the most important thing is that you always are flexible, and you’re not focused on one technical solution. It is not one is right, one is wrong – it’s always to find the best compromise.

And, this is also kind of a diplomatic approach. It’s not only thinking technically, but also thinking diplomatically. You’re always working with people around technical development, and you always have to regard what is their motivation and their intention, and to be open-minded in development process, to collaborate with project team and also other companies. And, to use that experience, because no one will be able to handle this complexity on his own.

So this complexity is getting more and more. This is also a good thing for us at Forward Engineering, because we see our experience is needed in such projects. And, we’ve seen so many times that it’s important to have right part on the table when you’re talking about new products, and how to make the right concept decisions. 

Image 3.pngAs cars become more complex and the use of composite materials grows, collaboration and compromise will be key to successful designs.

It’s not working on your own. It’s always working with the team, working with the experts, talking openly, discussing openly, discussing hard, always fighting for the best solution and the best compromise.

But also, understand how maybe a designer is thinking, also how a guy for electrical systems is thinking. What are their concerns? What is the drivetrain doing? Are we talking about highway cars? Then of course, the aerodynamic is important. Are we talking about megacity mobility cars with maybe a top speed of 60 mph or 50 mph?

So, this diversification we see in the market more and more must also lead to a diversified development process where people collaboratively work together.

This concludes our interview with Georg Käsmeier of Forward Engineering. Special thanks to Georg for sharing his thoughts on what he sees in the automotive industry and the changes coming to the automotive industry. 

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