Aug 11, 2023

Pioneering sustainability in mobility: ENGEL Mobility Days 2023

From automotive through aviation to urban mobility, industry experts and visionaries discussed challenges and trends, new market opportunities and technological possibilities at the ENGEL Mobility Days 2023 – supported by KTM Technologies – in Austria in mid-June. The two-day event with top-ranking keynote speakers and future-oriented machine exhibits combined and expanded the previous ENGEL conferences trend.scaut and Lightweight Future Day to create a new networking event.

"Let's spend two days completely rethinking mobility," said host Dr. Stefan Engleder, CEO of the ENGEL Group, welcoming the more than 500 guests at the start of the ENGEL Mobility Days 2023. Mobility is becoming increasingly versatile, and this was not only reflected in the list of participants but also the conference program. The keynotes covered individual transport by car, (motor)bike or e-scooter, but also public transport by bus, train, people mover or air cab, as well as aerospace and logistics mobility solutions from the classic truck to drones. There is one thing that unites all sectors of mobility, and that is making mobility more sustainable.

Whether new drivetrain solutions or autonomous driving, these trends are fundamentally changing the mobility demands, requiring completely new material and manufacturing solutions in some cases. This presents significant opportunities for the injection molding industry. "Plastics will play an even more significant role in future mobility than they do today", as Franz Füreder, Business Unit Vice President Automotive & Mobility at ENGEL pointed out. "Polymer materials are lightweight and allow for gentle use of energy and raw materials. They can be processed very efficiently in injection molding, making innovative technologies accessible to the mass market." The ENGEL Mobility Days 2023 showcased numerous examples.

Michael Fischer, Head of Business Development Technology at ENGEL, highlighted another advantage of the material group: "Plastics are permeable to sound waves and electromagnetic radiation, and this makes them indispensable for autonomous driving." Autonomous driving is all about connectivity, communication between the vehicles, and with other public and private transport users and the environment. The sensors used for this purpose rely on electromagnetic and acoustic approaches. Distance sensors, for example, work with ultrasound, while adaptive cruise control works with radar and night vision assistance systems with infrared.

"Plastics let all of these waves through, which is why they have already replaced aluminum and steel in automotive front and rear ends," said Fischer. "Autonomous driving is a massive opportunity for plastic injection molding. More efficient than any other method of plastics processing, injection molding helps to combine sensor systems and electronic features with a visually appealing design."

Among other processes, ENGEL developed its clearmelt technology for this purpose; clearmelt is a two-component process that combines in-mold decoration (IMD) with polyurethane flood-coating. "Flood-coating with polyurethane in the mold allows for a perfectly repeatable, smooth surface with a uniform wall thickness," stated Fischer: "This predestines the technology for integrating optical sensors."

The kidney-shaped badges for the new BMW iX are produced in a highly integrated cleanroom production cell by ENGEL. This is the first series production application for combined film back-injection and flood-coating with polyurethane on the demanding vehicle exterior.

BMW in Landshut uses this technological basis to produce "kidney" panels for the BMW iX electric vehicle in a cleanroom setup. Once the radiator grill, this characteristic design feature of all BMW models has taken on a new role following the electrification of the drivetrains. The kidney-shaped panels protect a series of sensors for assisted and, in the future, autonomous driving. To ensure that the sensors work reliably in the winter, BMW back-injects a heatable functional film with polycarbonate, which is then flood-coated with polyurethane. Following several applications for the vehicle interior, this is the first time that BMW uses a combination of film back-injection and flood-coating in the series production of functional parts on the exterior, where they are exposed to particularly high stress. The sensitive electronics are well protected under the scratch-resistant polyurethane surface. The high gloss level and depth effect, which even a thin polyurethane coating achieves, convey a very elegant impression. ENGEL is the system supplier for this demanding project. The production cell integrates an ENGEL duo combi M injection molding machine with a horizontal rotary table, two large articulated robots for handling the films and molded parts, a film cleaning system, an inline quality-control station, and peripheral units, including the polyurethane feed.

ENGEL is collaborating with development partners of combined back-injection and PUR flood-coating, including Leonhard Kurz Stiftung, Schöfer and Votteler Lackfabrik. In the scope of a project study, the partner companies demonstrated that flood-coating with polyurethane, which is equivalent to in-mold painting in terms of the process, accounts for only 20 percent of the total energy consumption in the production process. This makes the integrated process significantly more energy-efficient than painting the parts independently of injection molding.

Lightweight plays a central role in achieving climate protection targets. At its own interdisciplinary technology center for lightweight composites at the St. Valentin production plant in Austria, ENGEL has been developing innovative composite solutions in cooperation with partner companies for more than ten years. The primary development goal is integrated and automated processes for cost-efficient high-volume production.

One focus of the developments is using thermoplastic fiber composite materials. “The reasons for this are the highly efficient processes for processing thermoplastics on the one hand and greater sustainability on the other hand”, said Füreder. A consistent thermoplastic material approach paves the way for the subsequent recycling of the parts.

In the ENGEL organomelt process, Valeo Front End Modules manufactures front-end carriers with integrated air ducts for a German brand name OEM in Smyrna, Tennessee.

In the ENGEL organomelt process, thermoplastic fiber composite prepregs – for example, thermoplastic sheets and UD-Tapes – are shaped and functionalized in a single integrated step. To achieve this functionalization, reinforcing ribs or assembly elements are molded immediately in the same mold after thermoforming using a thermoplastic from the same matrix material group as the thermoplastic sheet.

This technology’s first high-volume production application went live in 2018 at Valeo Front End Modules in Smyrna, Tennessee, USA. Starting with thermoplastic sheets, Valeo Front End Modules manufactures front-end carriers with integrated air ducts for a renowned German OEM at its plant. The systems solution supplied by ENGEL for automated high-volume production consists of an ENGEL duo 1700 injection molding machine, three ENGEL easix articulated robots for preparing large quantities of metal inserts and for handling the thermoplastic sheet, an ENGEL viper 90 linear robot and an ENGEL IR oven.

The double-shell structure made integrating the air ducts directly into the carrier structure possible. The two half-shells are produced in a one-shot process. To do this, the two thermoplastic sheets are simultaneously heated in the IR oven and then inserted into the mold, where they are formed and functionalized.

The new two-stage process by ENGEL separates plasticizing from injection. This opens up new opportunities for recycling long glass fiber reinforced parts.

Recycling fiber-reinforced composite parts is another development focus at the ENGEL Technology Center for Lightweight Composites. "In the future, we expect automotive recycling to play a role in returning many fiber-reinforced parts made of polyamide and polypropylene to the material cycles in a single-grade process. However, the glass fibers are shortened when the parts are shredded. To produce high-quality fiber composite parts from returned materials, new fiber material needs to be admixed during the processing of the recycled materials," as Fischer explained. "We are working on a solution that lets us set the material properties very efficiently."

The basis is the new two-stage process that ENGEL presented at the K show 2022. To integrate a melt filter and a degassing unit, the production cell breaks down plasticizing and injection into two independent but coordinated process steps. This strategy allows plastic waste to be processed as flakes in injection molding directly after grinding to achieve excellent quality. Since a complete processing step, repelletizing is eliminated, the two-stage process saves much energy and work compared to legacy recycling. To reprocess shredded fiber-reinforced plastic composite parts to create vehicle parts capable of withstanding high mechanical loads, ENGEL is now integrating a glass fiber feed into the production cell in addition to the melt filter. The fresh long glass fibers are admixed before injecting the melt. "We are in the trial phase," said Fischer. "Initial trials are very promising."

Truck manufacturers, in particular, have their sights firmly set on hydrogen technology.

Alternative drive technologies also open new potential for the injection molding industry. "Hydrogen technology is currently being promoted particularly strongly in Europe, especially in the truck sector," Fischer reported. "The Cellcentric joint venture sees Daimler Truck and the Volvo Group bundle their experience in the development and production of fuel cell systems, and they have chosen ENGEL as one of their technology suppliers."

In particular, ENGEL’s expertise in processing elastomers and liquid silicone rubber (LSR) is crucial. Fuel cells require many seals, some of which are molded directly onto metal or plastic components. On top of this, there are cable lead-throughs, made of LSR.

Fuel cells are made up of several hundred bipolar plates, which require innumerable seals.

The bipolar plates, of which several hundred are needed for each fuel cell, are made of metal, but Fischer is convinced that this could change in the long term. "We are already developing injection molding solutions for thermoplastic-based bipolar plates. The challenge is the sheet thickness of only a few tenths of a millimeter; we are combining thin-wall technologies with injection compression molding."

Thermoplastics are also increasingly replacing steel and aluminum sheet for battery housings and trays in electric, hybrid, and fuel-cell vehicles. For example, Envalior – which emerged from DSM Engineering Materials and the High-Performance Materials business unit of Lanxess – is developing an innovative battery tray made of polyamide with a high glass fiber content. The wall thickness is less than 7 mm with a single shot weight of 60 kg. "The challenge for the plastic design is to be able to reliably absorb the high loads," as Fischer explained. "On top of this, the large-volume part and the very high shot weight require a especially large injection molding machine. We are planning with an ENGEL duo machine with a clamping force of 8,000 tons."

New mobility applications sometimes require particularly large injection molding machines. ENGEL builds machines with clamping forces of more than 10,000 tons.

While ENGEL duo injection molding machines have been available with clamping forces of up to 5500 tons as standard machines for a long time, ENGEL has now extended the series upwards for new applications in the mobility sector and other industries. Besides parts with a particularly large surface area and volume, these new mega machines, with extremely large mold mounting spaces, enable even more extensive process integration – for example, in the glazing sector.

The large mold installation space – shown on an injection molding machine with a clamping force of 8,000 tons – opens up new opportunities for very large parts on the one hand and highly integrated processes on the other.

"Clamping forces of more than 10,000 tons and shot weights of several hundred kilograms are already technically possible today," Stefan Engleder gives an outlook and underlines ENGEL’s commitment to building a new dimension of large machines. "We have created assembly capacity for this at both large machine plants in St. Valentin, Austria, and Shanghai, China. Worldwide, we are helping our customers solve the new mobility challenges."

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