What’s driving how job shops will serve the net-zero emissions automotive market

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by Nicolette Beharie 

With Canada gearing to meet its ambitious net-zero emission goal by 2050, the race is on to meet the new production demands of electric vehicles. At stake in how these new production demands will be met are the relationships between international automotive OEMs and their nearly 700 domestic parts suppliers and their more than 500 tool, die and mould providers.

Canada is one of the world’s top 12 producers of light vehicles and has the distinction of being one of only five machine-tool-die and mouldmaking clusters in the world. With a $12.5 billion contribution to GDP, automotive is one of Canada’s largest manufacturing sectors and the relationships between the  international OEMs and their domestic suppliers have been evolving for more than a century. But make no mistake about it, great change is coming to the automotive industry. How the shops serving the industry will be impacted will depend on how they respond to the adoption of new technologies where necessary.

In essence, the future is already here. This past December, prime minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario premier Doug Ford helped mark the opening of Canada’s first full-scale electric vehicle manufacturing plant. Located in Ingersoll, Ont., the General Motors (GM) plant will build fully electric delivery vans—the BrightDrop Zevo 600. According to the federal government, the plant aims to manufacture 50,000 electric vehicles per year by 2025. The plant opening was part of $16 billion in new automaker investments in the heart of Canada’s auto manufacturing over the past two years. And key provincial and federal provincials are hinting there could be more investments coming this year.

The investments are being generated alongside government plans to significantly change the automotive landscape in Canada. A week following the launch of GM’s plant, the federal government announced the release of Canada’s Action Plan for Clean On-Road Transportation. Among other things, the plan will set annually increasing requirements towards achieving 100% light-duty zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035. This includes mandatory targets of at least 20% of all new light-duty vehicle sales by 2026 and at least 60% by 2030.

“There’s no doubt we’ve reached the tipping point on electric vehicles: in the last two years we’ve almost doubled the amount of zero-emissions vehicles sold,” Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change, says. “Our Government’s strategy, including regulated sales targets, will make electric vehicles more accessible and reduce our dependence on the fossil fuel emissions causing climate change.”

KPMG, a multinational professional services network, conducted a survey of global automotive executives in 2021. Based on the findings, KPMG said all respondents expect market share of electric vehicles to grow dramatically by 2030, with most expecting it to be 50% or more. In other words, there’s no going back. It’s adapt to the new market reality or die. Part of adapting will require investing in new technologies. In this report we examine two of those technologies: additive manufacturing and robotics.

Additive manufacturing is building momentum

Mark Kirby, industry training manager of the University of Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab, agrees the automotive industry is in a period of great change and argues “the lack of (required) investment in tooling is one of additive’s great advantages during this period.”

Kirby suggests that additive manufacturing is a fundamental process in electric vehicle production, as it provides the design flexibility needed in a changing environment. Compared to traditional automation, the lower costs of additive manufacturing also reduce the business risks for companies experimenting with new solutions. 

Additive manufacturing allows suppliers to make automotive parts without creating a mould or other tooling. This process includes the use of various materials—such as metals, thermoplastics, polymers and composites—which help meet the lightweight requirements of electric vehicles.

“As we consider the electric vehicle architecture, we are discovering new complex geometries and new configurations,” says Agostino Zucco, global vice president of Linamar’s Innovation Hub in Guelph, Ont., a global supplier of automotive parts. “By having 3D printing capabilities, we can support retooling some of the components easier in house.”

Zucco says Linamar has been using additive manufacturing since 2018. And they have doubled their in-house 3D printing usage—year over year—in the last three years, he adds. “It’s an effective tool to support the customer in accelerating the product development cycle. We can now make prototypes very quickly, whereby years ago something that would have taken a couple of months we can now do in a couple of weeks.”

Supply chain disruptions have plagued the industry and its suppliers over the past two years, thanks to the ongoing pandemic and various global conflicts, creating price hikes and persistent shortages. But supply chains were already strained prior to the pandemic as the industry shifted from internal combustion to electric vehicles—with pain points amplified throughout the pandemic, according to KPMG. 

Evan Butler-Jones is vice president of product and strategy at Equispheres Inc., which produces metal powders for additive manufacturing, in Ottawa. He suggests that the supply chain issues during the last two years have pushed additive manufacturing even further to the forefront as a way of meeting the growing demand for electric vehicle parts. 

Butler-Jones says Equispheres’ customers often use additive manufacturing to achieve three main goals: rapid and flexible tooling, reduced prototyping cycles, and end-use parts production. But when it comes to producing high volumes, parts suppliers find that making a part using additive manufacturing is more expensive than traditional manufacturing. 

“Reducing the costs of materials used in additive is going to be critical in seeing wider adoption,” says Kirby.

Although additive manufacturing still needs time to become cost-effective enough for large-scale production, innovation in the technology and materials continue to improve. “We’ve had a lot of good success with customers that have been able to significantly reduce their costs by having more robust processes because they’re using the proper materials,” says Butler-Jones.

Additive powders used in automotive need to spread evenly in the powder bed and melt consistently. In order to achieve this, says Butler-Jones, the powder needs to be extremely smooth, spherical and contain low levels of contaminants. “We have case studies from customers that show they can increase the speed anywhere from 30% up to three to five times faster because of the way the material melts,” he adds. “A big factor in bringing down the cost of production is being able to make the machine investment make more parts at the end of the day.”

Equispheres recently released an aluminum powder that is non-explosive and non-combustible. “This greatly reduces the hazards. That’s a really big deal if you’re dealing with large volumes of material in your factory,” says Butler-Jones, adding that many of their customers handle a significant amount of powders on a daily basis.

“The development for new materials for additive is ongoing and it’s going to continue,” says Butler-Jones. “The combination of cost and more options will be the things that drive more and more applications.”

Robots and cobots lend a helping hand

Manufacturing labour shortages, coupled with aggressive production timelines for electric vehicles, are leading many companies to use robots and cobots (collaborative robots intended to work alongside humans) to meet their new targets.  

Zucco says Linamar uses robots in their facilities, particularly for tasks that are challenging or repetitive. This allows their skilled staff to focus on tasks that require their expertise or a human touch. Linamar has also integrated the use of its robots with vision systems. 

“The vision system observes where the parts are, sends coordinates to the robot, and the robot uses that to grab the part and relocate it to the process,” he says. “We’re also developing defect detection systems. As the robot is moving the part, it’s actually looking at it to see if it’s a good one. Does it have a scratch or a crack or some sort of defect? So there are projects that we have that are ongoing to learn about what we can do and which product lines we can deploy.”

Joe Campbell, head of marketing for Universal Robots in North America, says “traditional automation has its place in applications  where collaborative robots don’t fit. However, there’s a huge and growing area where collaborative robots actually have the advantage.”

Cobots are designed to interact with humans and are a fraction of the cost of traditional automation. They collaborate with human workers to safely perform welding tasks, lift heavy parts, screw in bolts, and rapidly carry out a variety of tasks – without the risk of serious injury. 

Campbell also points out that collaborative technology supports incremental automation. “When you’ve got a situation like we’re seeing with electric vehicles, where there’s a huge influx of new components and new part designs, you could automate one at a time, incrementally and in very short order.”

Campbell adds that product life cycles are shrinking, and product customization is increasing. “Consequently, we’re just moving closer and closer to this high-mix-low-volume manufacturing. It requires automation to be successful.” In an environment like this, suggests Campbell, the overall flexibility of cobots and the ability to deploy and redeploy quickly pays off.

Zucco says Linamar has a minimal amount of cobots in its plants, as the company mainly uses traditional robots and additive manufacturing in their current processes. However, Zucco sees the value of using all three of these tools to meet the new electric vehicle production demands. “I think they are all useable, even simultaneously, it just depends on the application.”

In 2022, Ford announced that it now operates its additive manufacturing printers autonomously using a mobile robot. This innovation is an example of how technologies can work together to increase efficiency and reduce costs in the automotive industry. 

“This new process has the ability to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities,” Jason Ryska, Ford’s director of global manufacturing technology development, says. “Not only does it enable Ford to scale its 3D printer operations, it extends into other aspects of our manufacturing processes—this technology will allow us
to simplify equipment and be even more flexible on the assembly line.”

 Kirby agrees that addressing the transition to electric vehicles may require more than one solution. “It’s all about having new tools in your toolbox. Everybody will use them differently,” he says. “It is the way that you use these tools that will ultimately create competitive advantage.” SMT

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