The automotive industry is undergoing a radical transformation, and Walter is playing an active role in driving change.

While the industry is developing electric vehicles and enjoying a global upsurge in demand for cars, it is also faced with the urgent need to refine combustion engines to reduce consumption. Lightweight yet high-performance drive systems are the order of the day. This presents the machining industry with a challenge, since some of the new materials used to achieve this are difficult to machine. Added to this is the increasing pressure to improve the efficiency of the production process.

Rarely throughout its history has the automotive industry been under such intense pressure to implement change: within the next two decades, the combustion engine is set to give way to the electric drive. National governments and the EU administration in Brussels have started to introduce tax incentives to promote electric vehicles over vehicles with combustion engines.

And that is just the beginning. Car manufacturers face penalties if they fail to comply with the political requirements for reducing CO2 emissions. At the same time, private transport is becoming ever more popular, and with this rise in popularity inevitably comes an increase in demand for energy. These trends are occurring against a backdrop of seriously depleted fossil fuel reserves and ever-increasing fuel prices.

One thing is clear: the pressure to design more energy-efficient systems is increasing rapidly, for instance to design engines that are lighter and more compact, while exhibiting performance that rivals, or even outstrips, that of their predecessors. One of the consequences of this is the growing trend towards turbochargers, which allow manufacturers to “downsize” drive systems without compromising on performance. The industry is anticipating that the number of petrol cars with turbochargers will have increased globally between 2015 and 2020 by more than 80%.

New materials – incredibly lightweight yet robust

Gianfranco Dell’Aquila, Automotive Business & Application Development Manager at Walter, says: “The trend towards weight reduction in order to lower fuel consumption has one consequence in particular: We can no longer use the materials we have traditionally been using until now – steel and cast steel. We need to look at using different materials. This is one of the main challenges that the industry is facing right now.”

Consequently, researchers in the laboratories of the raw material suppliers have been hard at work developing new, incredibly lightweight yet robust materials. Turbochargers, for example, have a hot and a cold side. With diesel engines, temperatures can reach up to around 650 degrees Celsius; with petrol engines, this is even higher, at around 1050 degrees or more. Currently, compacted graphite iron is used for diesel turbochargers; nickel-based alloys are usually used for petrol turbochargers, which generate even more heat than their diesel counterparts.

Dell’Aquila explains: “Nickel is relatively expensive. This is why more and more materials are being developed with a lower nickel content. However, almost all of these materials have one drawback in common: They are much more difficult to machine than the materials with a higher nickel content that have been commonly used to date, as the nickel must be substituted with other alloying elements.”

Alternative materials to steel and cast steel that are currently being tested and improved for manufacturing crankshafts, camshafts, connecting rods, engine blocks, cylinder heads and casing include hybrid materials that often combine steel with materials such as aluminium.

“We are expecting these kinds of hybrid materials, aluminium, die-cast aluminium and wrought alloys to be popular choices when ultra-lightweight materials are required.”

According to Dell’Aquila, Walter recognised this very early on, and responded with measures such as creating new tool coatings to adapt to the challenges presented by high-temperature-resistant materials that are difficult to machine: “Our new Walter Tigertec Gold grade generation, for example, boasts significant benefits for these kinds of applications. In virtually any scenario, it allows us to increase the processing speed and productivity, achieve longer tool life, and in turn reduce the costs per component.”

Digitisation for increased efficiency

Alongside the technological challenges that machining these materials entails, car manufacturers are experiencing a growing need for system expertise and comprehensive services with digital support. Ultimately, the new focus in this industry needs to be managed both on an organisational and on an economic level.

Walter’s tool management experts have a key role to play in this. Using digitised information, among other things, they have developed a concept for optimising tool use and processes. A number of customers, including customers from the automotive industry, are already capitalising on this novel concept.

Another example is Walter’s Tool ID: while pre-setting a machine tool would take on average several minutes in the past, it now takes a mere five seconds. This is made possible thanks to Tool ID from Walter, which automatically transfers the pre-setting parameters to the machine.

Unlocking the potential for optimisation

One of Walter’s tool management specialists’ specific objectives is to use ‘digital processes’ to unlock the potential for technological optimisation in their customers’ processes. To do this, they take an in-depth look at these processes and develop optimisation solutions tailored meticulously to meet their customers’ precise requirements.

The first step is always to take stock of how the customer’s processes are currently implemented: How does the tool flow work from a purely logistical perspective? How does the reordering process work? Which processes, machines and applications are running? How much is kept in stock?

The next step aims to make processes transparent. Walter’s specialists analyse how many tools of each type are used. They examine how the machining processes are carried out and how quickly tools become worn. In addition, they summarise the total costs, including non-productive time and set-up and takedown costs.

They use the data they obtain to determine both the areas in which costs could be reduced and the areas in which productivity could be improved, as well as the measures with which this could be achieved – for example, by reducing non-productive time, extending tool service life or adapting tool usage more effectively to component-specific processes.

The user generally sees an immediate benefit from these optimisations. For many projects, the increase in productivity or the savings fall in the single-digit percentage range; however, it is not uncommon for improvements of 20% or more to be observed.

Complete component cost concepts

This is a strategy that pays dividends: by taking a systematic approach to analysis and optimisation, Walter’s experts are able to develop complete component cost concepts. This enables them to produce components for a clearly defined, guaranteed price. The amount to be paid is then simply based on the number of units produced. Walter is responsible for ensuring that the machining processes are optimised and the components are machined to the required standard. The customer can calculate their costs based on a fixed price per component – a crucial factor for the automotive industry.

Dell’Aquila says: “To achieve this, we work closely with both car manufacturers and material manufacturers.”

This way, Walter’s specialists are armed very early on with the knowledge of which new materials will be available to them over the coming years, as well as the kind of component innovations that might be in store.

“This allows us to provide our customers with optimal machining concepts and tools as soon as they need to machine the first new components,” Dell’Aquila adds. “From the very first component, we are able to use optimised tools and machining concepts, lower costs and significantly reduce the time to market.”

However, these are not the only advantages of outsourcing responsibility for components, tools and machining: it also provides the customer with a single point of contact that acts as their manufacturer, service provider and technology partner, as well as implementing all their requirements. They can introduce process integration and digitisation in a way that benefits them immediately, allowing them to adapt quickly and efficiency to a changing industry. In addition, they can be sure that their production always uses the latest technology.

Broadening our digital expertise

To consolidate its digital expertise to cater to the requirements of this evolving industry, Walter has recently acquired long-standing software partner Comara. This acquisition is part of Walter’s plans to systematically transform itself from a pure tool manufacturer to a supplier of comprehensive production solutions.

Comara has worked in close collaboration with Walter since 2012. The company specialises in collecting, analysing and exploiting real-time data. Drawing on their respective areas of expertise, the two partners have been working together to develop software solutions, to more effectively network components in the production environment, and to optimise processes.

Combining the fruits of their labour with Walter’s Tool ID, they have been able to come up with intelligent tooling solutions, or “smart tools”. These tools help Walter’s customers in industries such as the automotive industry to overcome the increasing challenges in their markets and to strategically implement their digital transformation so that they are well positioned to cope with the demands of the future.