“Due to the many question marks that still exist, we develop without limitation to any specific technology”
Dr. Jochen Schröder assumed responsibility for the newly established E-Mobility division at Schaeffler on April 1, 2018. He’s been “charged up” ever since his days as a student of electrical engineering at the Hamburg University of Technology. Schröder subsequently earned a doctorate in the field of control technology. Following a more than 15-year successful career in various leadership roles, including predevelopment of electrical drive systems and full-vehicle energy management, at BMW, Schröder became head of development at Valeo Siemens eAutomotive GmbH in 2016. From there, he joined Schaeffer where, among other things, he’s making sure that electric mobility is literally put on pole position: in the future DTM Electric.
In the past, Schaeffler was primarily known for technology serving internal combustion (IC) engines. Today, the company is an established player in electric mobility. How has that been achieved? Is there a success formula?
I can’t judge whether there’s a general formula for achieving successful transformation. We started out by analyzing what strengths we have. That’s the foundation. Ideally, you then manage to develop a strategy based on that in which medium- and long-term goals are defined and ways of achieving them are identified. The transformation of mobility is one of the forward-thinking trends with which Schaeffler’s “Roadmap 2025” is aligned. That provides our direction. Building on that, we’ve defined five focus fields in which we can optimally use our existing know-how including, for instance, electric motors as well as CO2 efficient powertrains with hybrid transmissions or electric final drive systems. That’s where we rely on our in-depth systemic understanding of individual manufacturing technologies up to vehicle level. Based on that, we manage to offer high-level competitive developments very fast also in electric mobility.
“We are among the few suppliers that are able to define, produce and offer total systems that are better than their individual parts”
Can you illustrate that by providing some practical examples?
Schaeffler has developed a lot of know-how in the area of transmission technologies for IC engines in the past 50 years. Now an electric car no longer uses a manually shifted transmission but, even so, an electric motor transfers its power to the wheels via a transmission. Hybrid electric vehicles need transmissions as well for ideally combining the propulsion energy of the electric motor and the IC engine and to put it on the road. That’s why transmission technology was an ideal starting base for us in terms of new developments for electric mobility. Building on that, we’ve developed hybrid modules and transmissions for electric drive axles, for example. We initially purchased the required electric motors but soon recognized that even though an electric motor ultimately operates electromagnetically its composition is defined mechanically. It contains stamped sheet metal and in its production process utmost stamping precision is crucial. That’s something that Schaeffler has been doing really well for decades. In addition, manufacturing processes such as forming, joining, adhesion bonding and assembling are used. That calls for manufacturing excellence – which is another one of Schaeffler’s strengths. From that perspective, manufacturing electric motors in-house was ultimately a logical move. So, based on our strengths, we’ve developed new competencies step by step and consistently transferred them into new products.
… and regarded change as an opportunity rather than a risk?
In view of climate change and the resulting pressure for action, we soon realized that remaining strictly in the IC engine world was not an option. However, our own, intrinsic motivation of wanting to be agile is a stronger driver than the realization of having to be agile. This pioneering spirit that’s typical of Schaeffler unleashes a lot of energy in the entire team. In addition, we’ve provided the means for the investments that are necessary for developing know-how in electric mobility. Plus, we emphasized product ideas that are a good fit for us and have developed them further. Looking back on what we’ve achieved so far, I can say that we’ve addressed the right areas and got tremendous products and innovations off the ground that are meeting with very positive response by the market and our customers.
In other words, a true success story?
Let’s put it this way: Although there’s still quite a bit of road to travel ahead of us, I no longer question that we’ll succeed in establishing ourselves as a supplier in electric mobility as we have with the internal combustion engine. The current volume of incoming orders in the electric mobility business confirms my optimism. In the first quarter of 2022 alone, the Automotive Technologies division was awarded contracts worth two billion euros for the electric mobility unit. In 2021, the entire Automotive division generated 10.2 billion euros in incoming orders, with electric mobility accounting for 3.2 billion of that.
Looking at Schaeffler’s now extensive electric mobility product portfolio, which current highlight would you want to emphasize?
Our 4in1 e-axle. I feel that the level of integration that has been achieved there is revolutionary and reflects the full gamut of our expertise as an automotive supplier: our experience in classic transmission engineering and our know-how in thermal management that we’ve developed in relation to IC engines as well as our new expertise in electric motors and power electronics. In addition, combining the four subsystems, motor, transmission, power electronics and now thermal management for the first time as well, into a perfect unit requires a high level of systemic understanding. This interdisciplinary understanding of systems is one of Schaeffler’s strengths that has grown across decades. We’re one of the few suppliers worldwide that understand the whole gamut of domains, from thermal systems to drive systems, and the resulting complexity and, based on that understanding, are able to define, produce and offer total systems that are better than their individual parts.
What exactly is the customer’s benefit of buying such a complete system as the 4in1 axle instead of its individual components?
The 4in1 e-axle is more compact, which opens up all-new possibilities of space utilization in the architecture of the whole vehicle. In addition, such a total system offers cost benefits compared to a combination of independent subsystems, is perfectly coordinated and therefore even more efficient while delivering higher performance. Even so, irrespective of total systems like the 4in1 e-axle, with our diversified modular electric mobility kit, we continue to offer subsystems that are combinable in modular ways when customers wish to implement their own developments. However, be it total systems or subsystems, a successful integration into the vehicle’s overall configuration can only be achieved in an open and intensive exchange with the customer. That was the case with vehicles using internal combustion engines and continues to be the case with electric cars. In addition, those dialogs, both internally and externally, are fertile soil for creating innovations and new ideas.
IC engines had many different variants: gasoline, diesel, units with and without turbocharging, with two to twelve or even 16 cylinders, in-line, V and Boxer engines or exotic designs such as the Wankel engine. By contrast, an e-car has an e-motor, that’s it. Are there really no differences?
There are differences, in fact there are a lot of them. That that’s not part of the current public perception still tends to be due to the fact that all of us may still have to learn to understand the underlying technical aspects of electric mobility to some extent. We’ve all grown up with the IC engine. We used to already swap tech terms on the schoolyard while playing Top Trumps with car cards and everyone knew that a four-cylinder doesn’t have as much power as a twelve-cylinder. This wide-spread understanding has to develop first with e-mobility and I’m sure that once it has, word will get around that there are big technological differences between various electric motors.
What are those differences?
You could write entire books about that. Depending on the type of electrified powertrain, e-motors, in terms of their topology, have major technical differences, for instance in the type of winding, installation space, torque, permanent output and operating behavior. However, for some basic knowledge, a few key terms are sufficient. For instance, there are synchronous and asynchronous motors with major differences in their respective performance. An asynchronous motor is economical, robust and hard-wearing, whereas the synchronous machine delivers about 30 percent higher performance and achieves high efficiency even at low output levels. But it has the disadvantage, for instance, that it typically requires the use of rare earths at the moment. Most of these synchronous and asynchronous motors are conventionally built radial flux motors, which means that the magnetic flow is in the rotational direction. However, there are also some highly innovative motors with axial magnetic flow. They’re very flat because the stator and rotor are arranged on top of each other like slices of a sandwich and they have extremely high levels of power density. That’s not the only reason why such axial flux motors can be compared with classic twelve-cylinder engines but also because their design is of similar complexity. I’m sure that sooner or later people with an interest in technology will discover the wide range of existing technical differences, from motors that function in rather simple ways to performance motors.
In what areas does Schaeffler intend to position itself?
At Schaeffler, we essentially want to offer a wide variety of electric motors – across all electrification levels for hybrid modules, hybrid transmissions and fully electric final drive systems with a wide output range from 20 to more than 300 kW, even though we definitely see a focal area for ourselves in the highly innovative high-performance motors.
Being able to offer such a wide variety is, no doubt, a major challenge. Why is Schaeffler pursuing this pathway?
Because the transformation of mobility is still associated with major uncertainties. We know by now that electric mobility is coming. But how fast will it come? In what regions? And in what segments? Are we going to have more hybrids or more fully electric vehicles? In what markets of the world can we expect what volumes? And how are hydrogen and fuel cells going to develop? Because there are no reliable answers to any of these questions, we develop without limitation to any specific technologies. Besides that, our customers are asking themselves those questions as well. At Schaeffler, not least due to our determination of being our customers’ preferred automotive supplier, we regard offering powerful solutions in all segments as an obligation to some extent.
Doesn’t the ability to offer such a wide and variable product range also pose a manufacturing challenge?
It does indeed. We can only respond to the diversity of variants and the volatility of volumes with an agile way of manufacturing. This is another area in which we must drive digitalization and automation as keys to flexible and sustainable production. Schaeffler, for instance, does this in the research project “AgiloDrive2” for e-motors. In this project that’s funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection we are the leader of the consortium and engaged in exchanges with 17 partners. It was launched at the end of 2021 for a term of three years. Following its completion, we plan to transfer the findings gained from this project directly into electric motor production at our Bühl location. There, at the headquarters of the Automotive Technologies division, a state-of-the-art, globally leading, pioneering plant for manufacturing electric motors is being established.
What makes this e-motor factory a globally leading, pioneering plant, as you call it, in this area?
Instead of rigid production lines we emphasize highly flexible, digitized and efficient technology modules there. In the spirit of a “plug and produce” approach, they’re easily scalable, can be flexibly configured thanks to standardized machine connections, hardware and software interfaces and enable software-based interlinking and setup. The modular design of the machines allows for a reutilization of the production equipment, which is not only economical but also sustainable. In all of this, the fact that we can directly draw on a lot of know-how with our in-house special-machinery engineering unit is a major advantage. But, of course, such forward-thinking production facilities are not just about machines but also about people. With new qualification methods, we plan to facilitate and accelerate the learning process for our colleagues working there.
Let’s get back from manufacturing to the motors themselves once more. With IC engines, engine power per unit cc and efficiency have made major leaps in the course of time. Can we expect that to be the case with e-motors, too?
These propulsion systems and their evolution cannot be compared as easily as that. With ICE systems, the propulsion power is almost exclusively focused on the engine. In electric cars, it’s important to always look at the entire electrical system consisting of the battery, motor, electronics, system integration, etc., etc., etc. This total system is going to see considerable further development, for instance with solid-state batteries. With the electric motor itself, there’s still further potential to be tapped in terms of its optional dimensioning and integration into the system. We talked about the axial flux motor earlier. That’s a good example of how the design of the e-motor can also serve to increase power output and efficiency. So, yes, a lot is still going to happen in many areas of the total system of electric powertrains. Power density will improve, costs will decrease, range and weight will continue to be optimized.
Talking about the total system. What will change when the battery is replaced by a fuel cell?
The motor itself doesn’t care where its power comes from, especially since even fuel cell cars use a smaller intermediate battery as a buffer. However, there are big differences in the design of the onboard electrical system and the way in which the voltage is stabilized. The thermal management system has to be modified as well. A fuel cell produces more waste heat requiring dedicated loops for controlling and using it. Generally speaking, hydrogen technology is of strategic importance to Schaeffler, resulting in a corresponding commitment on our part to drive developments in this area with innovative ideas and products. Just recently, we announced that together with Symbio, a joint venture of Faurecia and Michelin, we’re establishing a joint venture for the production of bipolar plates for fuel cell systems. Bipolar plates are a key component of fuel cell stacks. We contribute our comprehensive expertise in the area of precision forming and stamping technology as well as our process know-how for mass production of metallic bipolar plates. We’re planning to launch production together with Symbio in our joint venture Innoplate at the beginning of 2024.
This, no doubt, is a major endeavor. What are your views on the market development?
Basically, we’re convinced that hydrogen is going to play a crucial role in sustainable mobility going forward. The development of a hydrogen economy and the conversion process toward sustainable energy resources will decisively depend on new technologies and the industrialization of reliable supply chains. Symbio has already been awarded a major contract for a fuel cell system by a leading vehicle manufacturer. In our joint venture, we’re going to produce the bipolar plates for that system together. The question of whether enough green hydrogen will be available for all sectors in the medium run still remains to be answered. That will inevitably determine the markets and vehicle segments in which fuel cell systems will tend to be used. For instance, transportation of heavy goods and long-distance hauling would clearly have to be given preference – at least from a technical perspective. However, at this juncture, it’s extremely difficult to predict whether reality will actually reflect this theory. Exactly such imponderables are the reason why at Schaeffler we’re preparing ourselves for as many contingencies as possible.
Thank you very much for these many interesting insights.