E-Mobility: Electric Shock or Opportunity?

Executive overview of the impact and opportunities of the shift to electric automobiles on the metalworking industry.  

The internal combustion engine, the heart of the automobile until now and a large part of the German and global auto industry, will have to be replaced or complemented with a new motor in the foreseeable future: the electric engine. Things once considered crucial will soon become redundant. Electric vehicles require no valves, pistons, air filters and throttles, no fuel injection systems, alternators, oil filters and starters, no turbochargers, fuel pumps, catalytic converters and exhaust systems, no tanks and many other elements.

The transition to electric mobility could be a bumpy ride, especially for the machine tool industry, which has enjoyed healthy growth in Germany over the past years. To ensure that this steady upswing can be continued in the future, the machine tool industry must remain on top of things and reinvent itself time and time again.

Machine tools are essential for industrial manufacturing processes. As a result, they are directly affected by new developments. Automation, Industry 4.0, additive manufacturing, energy efficiency, lightweight construction and electromobility are just a few key words that influence the entire machine tool industry.

According to a VDMA/VDW (Germany’s Machine Tool Builders Association) study, the proportion of newly registered purely electric passenger cars in Europe, the United States and China is predicted to be 20 percent by 2030. 60 percent of new registrations will be hybrid vehicles in different combinations, and we will see this trend continue. The proportion of vehicles with combustion engines will substantially be reduced – despite further engine optimizations to reduce emissions and increase efficiencies. Model initiatives and innovative technologies form the focal point in R&D of major automotive OEMs including BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Ford. They will invest billions of Euros in the development of hybrid and all-electric drives in the coming years.

But it’s not all doom for the metal removal world and the machine tool industry which generated about 10 percent (15.7 billion euros) of the total mechanical engineering sales in Germany in 2017. Demands on machine tool technology will change, but overall demand will not decrease. There are several reasons for that.

First of all, the reduced metal removal rates triggered by the developments described above is offset by the global increase in the total number of passenger car registrations over the coming years, mainly driven by demand from China, the world’s largest car market, responsible for around 30 percent of global passenger vehicle sales.

Secondly, the complexity of optimized combustion technology and the combination of combustion engines with electric drive concepts create an increased and different need for machining. Optimized internal combustion engines mean new developments such as variable-compression turbo engines to increase performance and efficiency, for instance. These complex engines need new parts which need to be machined. Even in the age of electrification, we will not be as close to finished with internal combustion engines as one might assume.

The automotive industry will increasingly require different, very precise and high-quality parts to meet the changing demands of future drive concepts. For instance, gearboxes will have to be designed to meet the industry’s demand for reduced noise emissions, components have to be much more wear-resistant to respond to sudden loads, e.g. when switching from the electric drive to the internal combustion engine at high speeds. Brakes need a sturdier design due to increased weight caused by the additional battery, and we will see a wide-scale need for turbochargers. Last but not least, we will have to develop new production and machining concepts to manufacture the increasing amount of electric drives including all necessary components.

These few examples clearly demonstrate the changing demands on tomorrow’s manufacturing technology. The machine tool will continue to play a key role in the automotive industry if the shift to more environmentally-friendly mobility is to succeed. Innovative machine tool builders who change their approach in the face of new challenges and carve a niche in emerging markets will benefit from the transition to electric mobility. The consumption of machine tools with continue to grow, also due to a rising global population and the associated demand for new goods that are essential to human mobility, not only including automobiles but also planes and trains.

Contributor:

Dr. Heinz-Jürgen Prokop is the chairman of Germany’s Machine Tool Builders’ Association (VDW) and a member of the managing board at Trumpf GmbH.