Repositioning of foundry in the automotive value chain

Foundry on Wheels 2017, October 20th 2017, Part 3

In a time when the automotive industry is under a profound transformation, a revolution, it is necessary to think about the repositioning of the foundry industry in the value chain of the automotive sector.

The components that the foundry industry has produced and produces, as well as the materials that it has used and uses, will not be the same as the ones they have to provide to the automotive industry in the future.

Worldwide foundry production

Worldwide production of cast iron and steel parts have been stable since 2011 at about 11.5 million tons. In non-ferrous alloys, world production of castings has grown very significantly since 2011 (17.6% from 2011 to 2016) reaching in 2016 about 4.2 million tons, according to data shared by Eng. Filipe Villas-Boas, Chairman of the Executive Board of CAEF.

The largest producer of ferrous and nonferrous alloys is Germany. Portugal ranks 12th in the list of the largest producers of ferrous alloy castings and 13th in non-ferrous ones. However, Portugal is the most dependent country in Europe on the automotive sector for cast iron parts. About 88% of the national production of grey cast iron parts and 90% of ductile cast iron parts are destined for the automotive sector (light, heavy and construction vehicles). This fact shows the great dependence and vulnerability that the foundry sector has in Portugal, in relation to the automotive sector. The Portuguese foundries and institutions should be particularly attentive to the market evolution and seek to adapt to its new needs. In German foundries production, the automobile industry consumes 70% of grey cast iron castings and only 40% of ductile cast iron casting.

World automotive production forecasts indicate that production will increase steadily in the coming years, rising from 92.8 million units in 2017 to 106.5 in 2023 (according to IHS data). These are apparently good news for the foundry industry, but the market will not be the same in the future, and only those that have the ability to adapt and look for new solutions for their customers will prevail.

The challenges from the automotive industry for the foundry

The constant imposition of lower limits on CO2 emissions is leading to major technological changes in internal combustion engines and the adoption of hybrid engines. Government pressures and consumer desires accelerate the demand for fully electric vehicles in conjunction with the demand for greater energy efficiency, forcing the demand and constant development of new materials with lower weight and better mechanical performance.

The evolution of the automotive market will offer many new opportunities for the use of aluminium castings. The demand for weight reduction in vehicles often results in the integration of a greater number of aluminium components, as in electric motors. In addition, in electric vehicles has there is an increased need for batteries, battery boxes are a new opportunity for aluminium components suppliers. Processes must also evolve, namely to eliminate the heat treatment stage in the production of new aluminium alloys.

The production of components in ferrous alloys will not disappear, for many of its applications, such as braking systems, brake discs, motors, differential boxes, among others, will continue to apply it in the future in internal combustion vehicles and hybrids. Many developments have been made in these "more traditional" alloys to develop and benefit from their application. Developments in the automotive production world indicate that by 2023 about 79.15% of vehicles will have internal combustion engines and the fastest-growing engine will be the hybrid engines using both internal combustion and electric engines, representing 18.4% of world production. Ferrous alloy foundries should continue to work on new materials development, such as stronger cast iron alloys to enable redesign and weight reduction, as well as seeking synergies with other materials producing hybrid components, which combine the strength advantages of the ferrous alloys with the low weight of the aluminium alloys. This technique is already applied in the manufacture of some internal combustion engines, such as the Ford 2.7/3.0 L V6 gasoline engine that equips, for example, the Ford F-150, Edge and Fusion.

The modernization of the foundry industry

The repositioning of foundry in automotive components supply should not be made only at the expense of new alloys and components development. Processes must also evolve to increase their efficiency, traceability, flexibility and quality. Alongside the revolution in the automotive sector, the foundry industry must also be aware of the opportunities that arise within the scope of Industry 4.0.

The possibility of digitizing the production processes with the acquisition of more process data and treatment of this information with the use of artificial intelligence, provide a greater knowledge about the productive process and variables that influence it. In this way, they can also predict and avoid defects during production, reducing or eliminating the non-compliant parts, as well as making it easier to produce customized alloys to customers' needs.

It is also important that the foundry industry sees the emergence of new production technologies as an opportunity to add value to their products and processes, not as competing technologies. An example is the additive manufacture, which although it is pointed out as a technology that will replace the foundry, has much to offer to help in the development of the process and castings produced by foundries.

A modern and innovative automotive industry can challenge conservative and traditional suppliers. Today, more than ever, the foundry industry must have a proactive attitude of finding solutions for its customers, adopting new technologies and reinforce teams for innovation and development.

The foundry sector has already delivered positive responses to industry challenges in the past, and will certainly be able to respond to todays and future challenges.