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Network research is not child's play

Gesticulating wildly, Arndt Kirchhoff defends steel as a material in the automotive industry. In this interview, the business leader also discusses the major trends in the automotive sector.

More than 75% of a vehicle - thus a large part of the innovation in the car - comes from the supply chain. MM MaschinenMarkt wanted to learn from one of the most important players in the market -

how such innovations arise, the role of the supply chain and what the top trends are. Answering these questions was Arndt Kirchhoff, spokesman for suppliers at the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and head of Kirchhoff Holding in Iserlohn, Westphalia, Germany.

Mr. Kirchhoff, you're regarded as a visionary in the industry - so why does your company still manufacture classic car parts? In view of traffic problems, not only in huge cities, should there not be entirely new mobility concepts?

That is the key issue for our company; one which we ask ourselves many times a year. In workshops, we try to think 20, 30 years ahead, to mirror our range of products, our customer spectrum etcetera on the major trends.

What are these trends?

Urbanisation, electro-mobility, networking of road users. If you combine them properly, you will arrive at what traffic will look like tomorrow. Since humanity first thought about locomotion, individual mobility has been an important issue and this is not going to change. So: you will need a structure and chassis also in the future, we are sure.

And in your funcion as spokesman for suppliers in the VDA: which technological trends do you see here?

There is, on the one hand, electro-mobility again – a field in which there are also disruptions. Away from fossil fuels towards renewable ones. The second trend is the topic of networking – any kind of networking of the vehicle up to automated driving. For example, we and a group of suppliers have developed the Street Scooter. We built the postal service’s electronic car ourselves, not because we wanted to become car manufacturers – although our first customers suspected that. We wanted to understand the degree of freedom we have with our bodywork and the chassis if the car suddenly no longer has a combustion engine, no exhaust system and no tank. Then you can design completely differently, build the floor with a ladder frame because it doesn’t need a tunnel any more, for example.

What is your prognosis on the topic of materials?

Here it is really a question of: which materials can be recycled, are unlimited and – most importantly – are also cost-effective? Mobility must also be affordable. We can reach our goal only if we can make mobility cheaper than it is today. There won’t be wood any more; plastics, if they do not come from renewable raw materials, are problematic. And here we must ask ourselves: what can they do and what do they cost? We are a few quantum leaps away from the most cost-effective material steel. Today the global recycling rate of steel is 70% at around 1.5 billion tonnes. And there is room for improvement as many countries around the world do not have recycling management as we do. Lightweight construction materials like aluminum or magnesium have a certain justification. There are also innovations that we are involved in along with our primary materials suppliers. We are trying to make the cheapest material – that is always steel – just as good as the more expensive but lighter materials of aluminum or magnesium. Time and again we are able to find solutions in steel that are just as light as aluminium, only cheaper. We are also able to find solutions with steel that are just as light as plastic, only cheaper.

How are you achieving that?

With materials research together with our suppliers. Here, procedures are being developed that make do with half of the wall thickness, i.e. half the weight. In the research it is steel that can do even more. However: it has to be formable and stay flexible, must not be too hard and must fulfil certain strength properties with regards to crash-relevant characteristics. In alternatives made of plastic, the same required properties provide greater wall thicknesses. One example is the BMW i3, which is an innovation, but not the latest in technical development.

Design innovations have no part to play?

On the contrary, that is the second important area. The forming technology gives us a certain rigidity. However, we aren't entirely free here as the designers have a say as well. It's a matter of cooperation between the participants: at the end of it all, a material should emerge that is good for design and is as light and cheap as possible. One trend is to combine materials that cannot be manufactured together and must be combined: hybrid or multi-material.

Keyword cooperation: The automotive industry is rather suffering from the tense relationship between the OEM and supplier. In view of the high level of product recalls, is that not a sign that you're overdoing it with pressure on the suppliers?

Product recalls are nothing new. I believe that the manufacturers and the entire supply chain has to make sure that you can also afford quality. It’s a fine line. However, I believe that today we are working with fewer errors than before. There is also a greater sensitivity to defects or damage. And the world has become more transparent.

Doesn't that lead to the relationship between supplier and buyer changing?

Generally the buyer isn't affected. It's rather more a problem of quality assurance or internal logistics. Today, each customer has quality rating sheets. We are all using the same system. If there is red anywhere, the purchaser might not place an order with you. These processes are very transparent and definitely better than before. We are also doing more business than before. We have definitely not become poorer.

Good, then let’s move on from the risks to the opportunities: please consider the innovations that you show to the OEM and the innovations you have seen presented by your suppliers. Where is there more progress?

Strength develops in the entire supply chain - one weak link and it breaks! Today you are at a family-owned company that considers itself a medium-sized company, even if we don't come under that definition. Typically, these companies are smaller than the multinational firms. And if they are smaller, then they have limits in terms of capital and personnel. These supposed weaknesses are compensated for by networks. We work together in medium-sized companies in centres of excellence. I have brought something for you (holds up a company brochure):The main theme of the Automotive Centre Südwestfalen, or ACS, is lightweight construction, in which competitors and companies which logically complement each other work together. Here you will find metal specialists, plastic specialists, joining technicians, surface technicians and automation specialists. Science is represented as a shareholder. And there is another shareholder – the sponsoring organisation. The Trumpfs and Schulers of this world are represented here. For example, this Schuler servo press (points to a photograph of a 1000 ton servo press) has more axles, more breakers, more possibilities; you won't find anything else like it anywhere in the world. Next door is a plastic compounder from Krauss Maffei that weighs 1300 tonnes and is for short, medium, long and continuous fibres. Handling systems link these steps in the production process. This equipment offers us the innovation of tomorrow. This is the new way of networking; however, it can also fail - don’t confuse it with child’s play!

Are you already using such special machines as a result of this co-operation?

Yes, for example a press from Schuler that can produce lorry parts as easily as anything. And: we are manufacturing a laser-welded component for the new Mondeo completely remotely. No-one else has done that until now.

Who is advising whom here? Is your head of development advising the machine tool manufacturers? Or is it the other way round?

First, a component must be constructible. Then you must convince the OEM that you can control this technology. Finally, we must create a specification sheet for the machine tool manufacturer in order to build the machine just the way we want it. It goes without saying that there are also subtleties, such as the tools for the holders that have to comply with the tolerances so that the machine manufacturer also has an opportunity. So there are several dependencies here. From the outset, the machine manufacturer never provides a machine that can do exactly what we need. There is no such thing!

Can you also simulate these complex operations, in order to gain time? How is the consistency of the data?

Yes, but for many steps today we don’t yet have material cards for the simulation. Overall, we have made unbelievable steps in recent years and are arriving at a prognosis probability of over 97.5%. As a result, customers are more frequently doing away with getting a prototype and at most pre-series types. From the simulation directly to the standard mould: that saves time and money; an enormous amount of progress.

Closely connected with that is the topic of Industry 4.0. Here, however, the automotive industry is bang up-to-date ...

I see it differently! We already have automated manufacturing today. What we need is networked manufacturing. The material that runs through the machines must talk to the machines. To do this I need to know the material characteristics down to the millimetre! This is only possible with large amounts of data and it has to be very quick! The result is you can control the process much better.

Leading thinkers are presenting their initial vehicle concepts with network-like external structures made by a 3D printer and smartly back-lit with LEDs. In your opinion, how important is additive manufacturing in the automotive industry which drools over customisation?

With 3D printing, you can produce parts more easily, you no longer need equipment, no moulds and no tools; you can reproduce bionic structures such as seaweed patterns or bird bones... Technically, it already works just like at Airbus – in small quantities! However, it takes five days to print a metal part. Even if the processing speeds for the printer were multiplied a hundredfold, you cannot mass produce.

You have left out one aspect, namely customisation, quantity 1, striking designs. For example, there is a car survey in which an additively manufactured 3D network structure is back-lit with colourful LEDs. Here the customer waits five days for his car.

If he pays for it. Just like he can have carbon if he pays for it. Yes, of course that will be the case and we will see what production figures are achieved with quantity 1. In our sector it's rather more a matter of mass production and fulfilling mass demands. However, you also have to say that 20 years ago we also didn’t offer any parts for Porsche, since the numbers were too low. Today, we’re gladly developing like crazy for Porsche because there are many models with platform effects.

A final request: tell our readers your personal ranking of the top six trends!

(... Kirchhoff leans forward) So, customisation is definitely last on the list. It's nice to have, that's obvious. In principle, we already have automated manufacturing today; that's my number five. I'd place networked manufacturing higher. Lightweight construction would definitely be number one from a resources point of view. Second place is for the intelligent car and number three is the electric drive – there are still so many questions regarding technical development, batteries, smart grids ... Additive manufacturing will increase, but will not change the world (he crosses out the number five next to automated manufacturing and writes a number 4. He indicates the topic of additive manufacturing). That's number five.

Arndt Kirchhoff explains the product portfolio to editor-in-chief Frank Jablonski at an exhibit: “We manufacture practically everything you see when a vehicle burns out.”

Interview conducted by Frank Jablonski, editor-in-chief.

Info

ARNDT GÜNTER KIRCHHOFF ...

... is the CEO of KIRCHHOFF Holding and is active in various different functions in employer and marketing

associations. Since 2013, he has also been vice-president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) where he is the spokesperson for suppliers.

● The company which he presides over, founded in 1785, is very internationally orientated. KIRCHHOFF Automotive alone produces in 29 factories, spread over 12 countries and three continents.

● Kirchhoff considers itself a "German Mittelstand" (a medium-sized business), even though it's not one by definition and stresses the role of the family-led business.

● The graduate industrial engineer was born in Essen in 1955, is married and has three children.

(Source: maschinenmarkt.de Search "Kirchhoff")

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