Globally, the norm today is to use less of everything that is usually required to achieve more of the desired results from vehicles. Hence, components need to be lighter yet stronger, smaller yet more powerful, durable yet affordable and so on. Achieving this requires an expertise in material science and design engineering, something we got a chance to witness in Germany, by ContiTech, a division of Continental AG and a leader in elastomer and plastics technology. On the sidelines of the product demonstration we got a chance to speak to Hans-Jürgen Duensing, CEO, ContiTech, and understand the kind of changes material science is bringing to our vehicles.
Emerging markets and growing environmental concerns have given birth to a few key mega trends, which ContiTech recognises as key focus areas for future. These include safety, environment, information and affordability. One of the key engineering methods to achieve these objectives is lightweighting. An important new product in this direction is the 'lightweight polyamide mount', which is a step ahead of aluminium.
The new Mercedes-Benz S Class Coupe is the first production vehicle to use a transmission crossbeam for rear axle made from glass fibre reinforced polyamide. This new polyamide part is claimed to be about 30 % lighter than an equivalent aluminium part. In addition, this component also offers lower noise, vibration & harshness (NVH) levels and better crash protection. BMW 550i GT and 750i also use a similar polyamide gearbox cross beam and have achieved up to about 50 % weight saving over a similar aluminium part, said Duensing.
Benecke-Kaliko, a division of ContiTech has come up with some interesting products, one of which is Nobelis, an alternative to leather. This isn't a cheap lookalike of leather and was developed specifically for upper mid-range and luxury cars. The new material is lighter than leather and other decorative materials and is fully recyclable. It also offers better resistance to light, heat and chemicals, thereby translating into longer life. Citing an example, Duensing said this new material is not prone to developing cracks like leather does over a period of time. As a result of this material, luxury vehicle cabins would remain luxurious for longer, while giving the engine less weight to haul.
Another interesting technology Duensing talked about was the Benecke-Kaliko cover material with surface-integrated heating function. Actually a spreadable polymer-based paste, this material can be applied to the other side of the cover material in applications such as heated seats, eliminating the need to have heating wires. This not only makes the seats lighter but also reduces the power consumption significantly, which could be beneficial for electric vehicles as it could enhance their range. This material can be applied to surfaces of the steering wheel, arm rest and floor mats as well.
The new double-sided timing belt for driving the balancer shaft is yet another interesting product Duensing talked about. Developed by the ContiTech Power Transmission Group, the teeth on the belt's reverse side transmit the opposite motion of the crankshaft to the balancer shaft. This belt is lighter and quieter than similar chains or spur gears for same objective. This product holds good potential for the Indian market in our view since the number of three-cylinder engines is rising steadily in the market and this component can help overcome the fundamental NVH problems associated with such engine.
Duensing also touched upon some other interesting technologies such as Active Vibration Control (AVC), which reduce NVH levels. While the name suggests additional expense, it actually reduces cost and weight since using AVC eliminated the need for passive NVH parts such as balancing shafts.
The showcase by ContiTech was impressive from a technical perspective but more from the ability to offer these at affordable cost. There were many technologies, which are aimed specifically at the luxury vehicles but more of them were aimed at the mid-segment and below. Some of these technologies offer seamless integration with smartphones, lending consumers with a more intuitive experience.
We also witnessed a focus on integration of multiple components into a system, widely referred to as modularisation. While we've written time and again about this trend, the difference in ContiTech's approach is of combining design and downsizing with usage of new materials, resulting in lighter and more durable systems with same or improved performance. The pressure for green credentials, in addition to the targets related to comfort and refinement, is constantly growing on the manufacturing sector and material science will play a critical role in achieving it. The advantage ContiTech has in our opinion is that of a vast product range for multiple vehicular segments.
That the next stage of growth lies in the East and some South American countries is now a well-known cliché. What we found that could work for ContiTech in these markets is its ability to sense and address key customer requirements and trends specific to these regions. Low-cost technologies catering to improved comfort and feel are a sign of good future business.
Text: Arpit Mahendra