E-mobility not only affects automobile manufacturers, but also has an impact on smaller suppliers. Dr. Jochen Kress of Mapal explains what changes a C parts supplier is facing and how the company intends to compensate for potential sales losses.
Mr. Kress, what sales does Mapal generate in the automotive sector?
Of our total sales of around € 610 million in 2017, about half was generated in the automotive business. The majority of this is accounted for by tools for powertrain applications and the chassis segment.
How much of your sales of tools for powertrain machining could be lost in the long term?
That depends on many factors. For example, the development of worldwide vehicle production or the market shares of drive concepts. Or how many electric motors drive a hybrid or electric vehicle.
It is well known that the number of machined parts used in an electric motor is drastically reduced. If the machining effort for a combustion engine equals 100, according to calculations by the Institute for Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools at Darmstadt Technical University, it will amount to around 110 % in a hybrid drive. In the case of a battery electric drive it is only 28 % and in the case of a fuel cell drive slightly more than 30 %.
If this information is related to each other, the most extreme scenario could be that the demand for our machining solutions in the powertrain sector could fall by around 30 % by 2030. That would be a projected decline in sales of one seventh of our current total sales.
One thing is that the electric motor requires less machining. What are the differences between machining an electric motor and a combustion engine?
With the exception of the stator shaft, the machining of steel is almost completely eliminated in an electric motor, as it only has an aluminum housing. It is relatively similar to that of a gearbox housing, which is why the machining processes are fundamentally similar. However, the tolerance requirements for stator housings are about twice as strict as for gear housings. In particular, the bearing seats of the rotor bearings can only deviate by a maximum of ten micrometers, in contrast to 20 or 40 micrometers for earlier generations of electric motors.
Why are the requirements increasing?
First, with an electric motor, no loud combustion noises superimpose the other excitations any more. Noise development must therefore be kept to a minimum. The more precise the components, the fewer are the vibrations that occur and the lower is the noise level. Secondly, more and more high-revving electric motors with up to 30,000 revolutions per minute are being used, which already emit a certain background noise. Last but not least, the housings of the electric motors are very thin-walled. All in all, this leads to high tolerance requirements, especially for the rotating parts and the bearing positions. To al less significant degree, this also applies to gears and their gearing or to the moving parts of auxiliary units such as coolant pumps.
How do you solve this issues on a technical level?
Our test department is equipped with different machining centers. Together with our customers, we determine the most suitable machining processes. How do I clamp my workpiece? How many process steps are optimal for component machining? Which tool is best suited?
We have developed a new tool series based on our experience with machining gear housings in order to machine the main bore of stator housings, for instance. Their central tube design with welded supports for the cutting inserts and the low weight in relation to the bore diameter ensure optimum concentricity and high-precision machining processes. With this tool series, individual drilling, boring, reaming and milling processes on the stator housing are possible — from pre-machining through semi-finishing to finishing.
Can Mapal realize these low tolerances with your in-house know-how?
Yes, we can solve the mechanical requirements with our own resources. I see cooperation with new customers as more of a challenge. In the case of internal combustion engines, it's the OEMs, in the case of electric drives it's suppliers. There are also new components and ideas that we sometimes have yet to understand. In addition, some customers don’t always have the technical background of high-precision manufacturing.
What else changes in the cooperation?
The quantities of tools for e-mobility are currently still much lower. On the other hand, in Europe, technology and quality demands are already on the level of large-scale production. In Asia, small-series tools are still being used more frequently, which is why our tooling concepts are not yet being fully implemented there. Delivery capability and pace of development are comparable to those of combustion engine products.
And what about the overall process?
Some of our new e-mobility customers may not yet have development structures and processes that are as well-established as those of our long-standing partners. In this area, we have to be even more visible as a process partner who delivers more than just the right tool. To this end, we offer our customers a modular service concept, ranging from engineering to logistics, billing, training and repair. Many established customers may only use our services selectively. New partners are more interested in comprehensive support.
Would it be an option for Mapal to start developing or manufacturing e-mobility components?
We actually thought about developing products for e-mobility some time ago. But we quickly realized that this topic is relatively far from our core competencies. Within the process chain, we are so far down the process chain as a tool supplier that the actual decisions about the product and production concept are made long before we are involved. As a result, our direct points of contact with e-mobility are relatively low. In most cases, the customers only ask us for the right machining tools in defined quantities. Apart from that, we follow the subject of e-mobility with great interest, both on a professional and private level. After all, we want to know what challenges Mapal will have to face in the future.
What sales do you expect to come from the e-mobility business segment in the medium term?
We have already developed a small but high-quality portfolio of machining tools for electric drives. Without having made any detailed analyses now, we envisage a high double-digit million amount by 2030, which we want to generate with tools for e-mobility. Regardless of the sales figures, we aim to achieve a market position at least as strong as the one we have with the machining of combustion engines.
In which markets do you expect the greatest sales increase?
E-mobility with a second focus on China could complement our strong focus on the European market. In the Chinese market, there is almost a gold-rush atmosphere regarding e-mobility. We want to be part of this booming business.
Can the new tools for e-mobility be produced with the current personnel? Or is a completely new "thinking" necessary?
Our employees can also apply their expertise gathered in previous projects to the field of e-mobility. In addition, they must become familiar with the specific correlations, applications and challenges. Then they can also realize Mapal's claim in the e-mobility segment: "The customer buys a tool, but receives a functioning overall solution".
In addition to the electric motor and the transmission, what other e-mobility components would be potential "machining objects" for Mapal?
The machining of battery housings is an interesting field. In addition, we already offer solutions for machining of drive joints and steering components. With regard to e-mobility, lightweight construction with fiber-reinforced plastics is also a promising market. In this area, we already offer a tool portfolio that is used in automotive engineering and aviation.
Do you see any other potential business areas apart from automotive engineering?
We will certainly remain a manufacturer of machining tools with a focus on the automotive industry. In the future, I could picture our tools increasingly being used in tool and mold making, as well as in the machining of smartphone housings and spectacle lenses. Another main pillar could become tool organization including data management and data analysis. For digitization topics we have established a start-up company called C-Com.
Will e-mobility make Big Data an even more important aspect for Mapal?
Data management in e-mobility projects does not fundamentally differ from that in our other business areas. The documentation of product and machine data is well advanced everywhere. On the other hand, we are all still pretty much at the beginning of documenting and evaluating process parameters. This is another topic to which C-Com is devoted intensively.
The questions were asked by Hartmut Hammer
This article was first published by Automobilindustrie.