Trends

The business unit for “Lightweight Production Technology“ of the Fraunhofer IPT develops new solutions for the mass series production of lightweight components in a wide range of industries – from car manufacturing and aeronautical engineering to oil and gas production. Ramon Kreutzer, head of the business unit, explains why lightweight construction can be no longer dismissed as a mere fad and why it has established a trend within the industry that enterprises cannot afford to ignore.

What has caused the trend towards lightweight construction, and how are enterprises supposed to react?

Over the past few years, lightweight construction has developed into a solid trend: a growing awareness for environmental concerns, for sustainability and for an efficient use of resources has not only prompted a turnaround in the energy policy of the German government but also moved up the corporate agenda. This is mainly true for industries such as aeronautics and car manufacturing where less weight is more, but also purely performance-oriented sectors of the economy stand to benefit: oil and gas producers, for example, can use riser systems made from fiber-reinforced plastics to penetrate ultra deep water fields down to a level of 3000 metres. This works because FRP pipes combine a low weight with high and customizable levels of rigidity which are individually adjustable to changing outside conditions and high levels of chemical resistance. The Fraunhofer IPT is developing technologies, equipment, tools and software for the processing of fiber-reinforced plastics including joining, forming, separation and handling as well as quality assurance procedures, enabling our clients to integrate fiber-reinforced materials, high-performance metals, ceramics and multi-material systems into innovative series products.

What impact will Industry 4.0 have on the production of lightweight components?

Industry 4.0 delivers the key to the affordable mass production of lightweight components by helping to cut waste through stable and reproducible manufacturing processes. This poses a huge challenge specifically for FRP manufacturing, since this material is only made from semi-finished products and matrix materials during the production process itself. Large numbers of possible combinations create vast bands of possible process variations, potentially limiting reproducibility. With more efficient networks, however, it will be possible not only to acquire data during manufacturing but even to feed them back into the production process straight away. This way, manufacturers can create “digital shadows“, virtual representations of the production process or the products. Such digital shadows can be generated by the integration of optical fibres together with suitable measuring systems into fibre-reinforced composites. Not only will it be possible to subject the production to comprehensive supervision and monitoring with such data, but one may even optimize the manufacturing operation through “in-process learning“ mechanisms.
 
What do enterprises have to do to manufacture high-quality but affordable lightweight products?
 
The degree of automation in FRP manufacturing lines is currently rather low, while the high demand for individualized products – down to batch sizes of 1 – at affordable prices provides a huge potential for further growth. Many enterprises must now take two steps at once: on the one hand, they need to automate their production lines to ensure high levels of reproducibility for mass production, to cut waste and to reduce their costs. At the same time, they must be able to adapt their production processes to changing requirements. This is a specifically challenging combination for small and medium-sized enterprises. The Fraunhofer IPT business unit for “Lightweight Production Technology“ helps our business partners to produce lightweight construction products in large series and to provide their end customers with efficiently manufactured, more environment-friendly products at affordable prices. Through the Aachener Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL), we are integrated into a network that comprises more than 60 international enterprises and act as a direct research partner for the lightweight production industry