Dr. Dietrich Birk talks to TRANSFER magazine about the opportunities lightweight materials present to companies and how research findings are shared in this area.
Dr. Birk, when people talk about connected or smart factories – or rather, Industry 4.0 – they often omit the opportunities and threats posed by technology convergence. Digital technology is just one area where this convergence is happening in engineering, but there are a number of reasons why energy efficiency and conserving resources are particularly important to engineering and machine construction. Yet another area of convergence is lightweight design. What potential do you think this holds for businesses?
Lightweight materials have been a key driver in the ongoing development of moving components for years. If something has to move faster but use the same amount of energy, then basically its mass has to be reduced. One of the most obvious examples of this is in the aerospace industry. The issue of resource and energy efficiency, plus achievements in the field of composites, have shed new light on the importance of lightweight construction in recent years – in many areas of the industry.
Machine building and engineering can initially be seen as business partners when it comes to preparing suitable production and joining technologies for mass production. But using hybrid lightweight components made with combined materials based on fiber composites, aluminum, or steel are also becoming increasingly important for engineering. This is about finding the right materials with certain properties and using these in the right application, and this makes it possible to save energy by reducing the weight, without making compromises in terms of material strength or stiffness. In this respect, engineering is actually a significant and growing market for lightweight technology.
Lightweight materials are in a field of technology convergence that transcends all industries, so research findings need to be transferred quickly into business. To push forward with this, the VDMA has done things like set up an action group to work on hybrid lightweight technology. SMEs in particular tend to need help with technology transfer. Is it enough to help businesses and their partners forge networks with the people who have the knowhow, or do you think more should be done – for example by helping SMEs improve their agility?
The VDMA set up the hybrid lightweight technology action group to help engineering firms interact more with people working in downstream industries and the supply chain, and to exchange notes on the possibilities presented by lightweight technology as well as the technologies themselves and the materials. It’s important to cover the entire spectrum of lightweight construction to get a grasp of the market and all of the opportunities it presents. The scientific community is also part of this action group to ensure know-how is transferred to small and medium- sized enterprises. Also, the VDMA in Baden-Württemberg is involved in some important platforms at the state level to help companies network, not just with one another but also with politics and science. So there’s a lot being done to make sure smaller companies also receive support in understanding and exploiting the opportunities presented by lightweight technology.
There’s no denying that lightweight technology is the big trend at the moment. But how will things be going forward when it comes to sustainability?
Energy conservation and resource conservation are both gaining in importance at the moment. Lightweight technologies make a huge contribution to achieving such goals. They also help gain competitive advantage through new and innovative solutions. For example, simulations can be run on the structural mechanics of materials during the development process and this makes it possible to optimize virtual components.
This can help save on materials without reducing strength. And every reduction in materials has a direct impact on resource conservation, so this makes it possible to save significant volumes of materials, especially in mass production.
There’s no getting around the issue of sustainability when you’re dealing with lightweight materials, but apart from saving materials on the components themselves, there’s also the aspect of being energy-efficient in the way the components are actually produced. So one has to keep an eye on the entire production process to really act sustainably.
What will the big threats and opportunities be in engineering if everything “goes lightweight”? Which technology trends will build on this and how will they determine what happens to the industry in the future?
Lightweight design is a key issue when it comes to conserving resources and efficiency. One thing that will increasingly drive future developments will be digital technology. There’ll be intelligent material structures that will be able to adapt their shape if stresses are applied in a certain way. They will be able to take on greater loads, whereas before the ultra-light nature of the material would have meant that the part would have failed. Such smart components will need to be connected to other ones and be fitted with sensors. There are already examples of this happening in the construction industry.
From a technology perspective, engineering in the state is basically on a good footing in competitive terms, but in the future, it will always be about spotting the right trends at the right moment and exploiting any potential to expand, not just at home but also abroad.
Dr. Dietrich Birk is the managing director of VDMA Baden-Württemberg, the mechanical engineering industry association. In this role, he is a also a member of the Steinbeis Foundation board of trustees. The VDMA represents the common commercial, technical, and scientific interests of engineering companies, especially with respect to national and international authorities and business stakeholders.