For those with deep pockets and a desire for cars both fast and green, Mercedes-Benz expects to begin sales of its electric EQS sedan late next year. Audi, Hyundai, Toyota,
Volkswagen, Volvo and other leading automakers are following suit, announcing their intent to have dozens of electric vehicle (EV) models available and millions of electrified cars on the road by 2025.
That’s also the year that Jaguar will reportedly become an “all-electric luxury brand,” with its sister company Land Rover moving in that same direction soon after. And General Motors CEO Mary Barra says the company will halt production of its gas-powered light-duty cars and trucks and transition to EVs by 2035.
Given the significant changes in the automotive industry, many shops might be left wondering: What does it all mean to us? What new materials will we face, and what equipment will be needed to stamp, form and bend the deluge of new EV-specific parts headed our way? Most importantly, will electric cars and trucks spell the end of the automaking paradigm to which OEMs and their tier suppliers have become accustomed?
According to Thomas Schmider, director of automotive at Michigan-based Schuler Inc., the transition toward EVs is not expected to fundamentally change the press equipment for conventional stamping of large body panels in the near future.
“While the BIW (body in white) architecture certainly is different for a vehicle designed as electric from the ground up, the stamping presses used by EV automakers are largely the same as the ones used for large body panels of conventional vehicles,” he says. “Already existing trends such as the need for increased productivity, flexibility and reliability will continue. These trends and developments are not necessarily triggered by the increase of EV production, but are often amplified by it. For example, new plants often have to rely on just one stamping line for a larger variety of parts in the initial startup phase. Similarly, all the developments under the Industry 4.0 topic will continue to grow in importance.”
The trend toward a more diverse material mix is expected to continue, as well, adds Schmider. “This may impact the press equipment, especially for the manufacturing of structural components. Presses, for example, will have to adapt to the increasing use of high-strength steels and automation fit to handle aluminum or other non-ferrous materials. We should also see an increased share of non-conventional processes, such as composite materials, which may substitute some of the current stampings. Some of the stamped parts will disappear, either eliminated in a different architecture or replaced by such substitutions. However, there are new press parts that were not found previously in conventional combustion engine cars.”
A perfect example of this are the rotor and stator plates needed for electric motors. Schuler has addressed this growing demand with its SmartLine series of high-speed presses, designed specifically for the mass production of electric motor laminations. Batteries are also big business, or will be, once the EV market really gets rolling.
Schmider points to the battery housing, which in some designs can consist of various stampings. There are also various other parts within the battery that can be manufactured on presses, such as the connector plates and, of course, the battery cells themselves.
Machine tools notwithstanding, the upcoming EV revolution will have a dramatic impact on several key areas. The first of these is the automotive supply chain, which in some cases has remained unchanged for decades. Automakers must continue production of their legacy models while simultaneously migrating to entirely new vehicle platforms. This will be a challenge for them, not only financially but also from an engineering and people perspective.
They won’t be alone in these endeavors, however. Automakers are striving to do more with less by forming alliances with others in the industry, companies that can help shorten vehicle development cycles and make automakers more flexible. One example of this is GM’s $2.3 billion joint venture on EV battery cell production with South Korean chemical giant LG Chem, or BMW’s collaboration with Daimler for urban mobility services and vehicle charging stations.
This last point illustrates the trickle-down effects that automobile electrification will have on our infrastructure. Just as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 literally paved the way for the widespread adoption of cars and trucks, so will the construction of countless charging stations help to promote EV use. “There will undoubtedly be new businesses starting up as a result of all this activity, many of which will generate increased manufacturing opportunities,” Schmider says.
Laurie Harbour agrees. The president and chief executive officer at the consulting firm Harbour Results Inc., Southfield, Mich., she’s been advising automakers and other manufacturers for more than 35 years and feels we’re rapidly approaching an EV tipping point.
“Battery technology improves every day,” she says. “Vehicle ranges are getting longer, charging times are shorter and battery costs are coming down. So, while we still have a way to go, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it: battery-powered electric vehicles are coming.”
Harbour notes that, as with most manufacturing ventures, the biggest roadblock is justifying the tremendous research and development costs for EVs. For instance, when Ford spends a billion dollars on launching a new F-150, board members can feel comfortable knowing they will recoup that figure many times over. But spending that same amount to introduce an unproven vehicle powered by rapidly changing battery technology? They might just decide to put on the brakes.
Simplify or die
One way to paint a more compelling financial picture is to simplify the vehicle design, she explains. An F-150 is available in six distinct models, three cab options, three box sizes, five engine displacements and a dozen or so equipment packages. A Tesla Model 3, on the other hand, can be ordered online in three versions – standard, long-range and performance – with a $10,000 self-driving option. Whatever you think of Elon Musk and his approach to manufacturing, ask yourself this: Who has a lower tooling cost per vehicle, Ford or Tesla? And which carmaker is more nimble?
One notable example of this is Tesla’s recent investment in the largest aluminum diecasting presses ever made. Rather than stamping and joining the 70 separate components once needed for the Model Y’s rear chassis, Tesla can now cast them as a single piece. Granted, each machine carries a massive price tag, as do the dies used to form the chassis, but Musk’s bold move shortened lead times, eliminated hundreds of robots and greatly simplified the manufacturing process.
“If Ford or GM finds a way to improve one of their cars, they’ll wait until the next model year to implement the change,” Harbour says. “Tesla, on the other hand, doesn’t do formal changes. They have an ‘improve it as we go’ mentality and routinely push out software updates for their cars much like Apple does with their iPhone. Electric vehicles or not, the industry is undergoing a dramatic shift, and manufacturers who wish to compete had best be a lot more agile than they have been in the past.”