In the making
Professor Hosenfeldt, Schaeffler is making a significant forward-thinking investment at its Franconian headquarters. What does the company expect from this move?
Last year, we announced our Roadmap 2025. It encompasses capital expenditures of 80 million euros for our new Central Laboratory in Herzogenaurach. The objective is to secure our competitiveness and future viability while strengthening our technology location in the process. Completion is scheduled for December 2023 so that we’ll be able to launch the laboratory in early 2024, which means that we’re going to concentrate a large number of services in one facility.
Why are you now combining your previously separate research activities in a Central Laboratory?
With its Central Laboratory, Schaeffler offers colleagues in research and development the opportunity to achieve solutions on a cross-functional basis. Our big objective is to develop a sustainable and carbon-neutral mobility and energy ecosystem. The Herzogenaurach site has always been the location of our core competencies in the basic research and development areas, so the Central Laboratory will be a cross-divisional technology center on the campus. With it, we intend to set standards in an industry comparison. The attractiveness of the location and its competitiveness will establish additional incentives for the region, for customers and for employees. We’ll create an active knowledge transfer due to a close-meshed network. The short distances will accelerate processes. As a result, we’re going to have an agile environment that’s state-of-the-art – a place for joint research and development and for intensive exchange, for sharing knowledge and for professional training and development.
A place for exchange? Please explain what that means.
The Central Laboratory will be a place of joining and experiencing project teams. Around 360 employees are going to conduct joint research work on forward thinking topics, present new technologies and products. The future will become a tangible experience at our facility. Essentially, our cross-functional teams are made up of our existing employees. We plan to successively extend this group of people through systematic learning and development in our in-house R&D network. In addition, we also explicitly plan to intensify our collaboration with external partners and customers.
What diversity in research and development does Schaeffler have to cover now and going forward to live up to its claim “We pioneer motion” that’s manifested in the company’s new slogan?
As an integrated automotive and industrial supplier, Schaeffler already produces and delivers components and systems of utmost precision and quality as well as pioneering sustainability, focused on electric drives, energy storage and converter systems, hydrogen technologies plus automated and autonomous systems. The Central Laboratory will encompass a unique portfolio of services combining analytical methods and specialized expertise and put us in a position to expand our innovation prowess and speed. The focus here is material, chemical, coating and nano technologies as well as mechatronics with the corresponding high-resolution measuring technologies to determine mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical and physical characteristics. Due to the utilization of AI – artifi cial intelligence – and worldwide digital integration, we accelerate the development process in cross-functional teams within Schaeffler’s globally connected research and development organization. In this context, it’s very important to note that we explicitly include our customers when saying that “We pioneer motion.” They’re an important factor in our development processes from the initial planning step to the fi nal outcome. This is another key aspect in our pursuit of reducing time to market.
Obviously, Schaeffler has been relying on laboratory capacities before. What’s the advantage of a compact infrastructure?
At the moment, our various laboratories are distributed across the company’s premises and at different locations. Concentrating them in one place facilitates systematic exchange and active collaboration. But even chance meetings can quickly evolve into constructive conversations. That’s exactly what makes such a marketplace of knowledge so attractive. The move, though, has 80 technical reasons as well. It enables us to create optimal conditions in terms of air conditioning, vibration isolation, infrastructure, clean-room facilities and sustainability. This is where the new Central Laboratory sets standards. For instance, we’ll be able to develop and test electrochemical cells and active materials under clean-room conditions. Material and surface technologies, for example, are decisive for achieving the best cost-performance and sustainability ratio of fuel cells. We’ll also have high-resolution microscopy including transmission electron microscopy that off ers more than thousandfold higher resolution than light microscopy, enabling representation in the atomic range, in other words the ten millionth part of a millimeter. All of these technologies are prerequisites for fundamental transformation in transportation, industry and energy production – the major industrial questions to be addressed in the early 21st century.
Our big aim is to develop a sustainable and carbon-neutral mobility and energy ecosystemProf. Dr.-Ing. Tim Hosenfeldt
Flexibility is important not only in industrial production but as early as in research. What contributions can the Central Laboratory make in this context?
We’re setting up our new laboratory so that individual test pieces as well as components up to and including systems can be analyzed and evaluated there and we’ll be able to fl exibly adapt our analytical methods and capacities to technological change. Plus, all our research and development services will be available on an interdisciplinary and holistic level because we concentrate them. As a result, we’re creating the basis for agile, fl exible and cross-divisional project work.
The goal of carbon neutrality makes maximum demands on the product developers at Schaeffler. What contribution can the Central Laboratory make in this case?
The lion’s share of a tangible product’s carbon footprint is attributable to the material. And the main products at Schaeffler will continue to be of a material nature even in the age of the Internet of Things and cyber-physical systems. These products are created from diverse materials and their composites. On every workday, we process the same amount of steel that’s contained in the Eiff el Tower. To reduce the carbon footprint going forward, we need to develop and provide CO2-neutral steel at the best cost, performance and sustainability ratio. Based on the structures, we determine the composition and purity of the material and the component characteristics using digital prediction models. However, this applies not only to steel. Polymers, ceramics and anisotropic materials such as composites that are increasingly produced by means of additive technologies and turned into products can be calculated and manufactured accordingly. Here, our laboratory creates a concrete contribution to environmental and climate protection. When it comes to sparing use of resources, “efficiency first” is always our top priority, that’s why we develop components and systems that help save energy throughout their entire lifecycle including their manufacturing process and application. Due to this holistic approach, our products make an increasingly valuable contribution to sustainability for the customer and for society. The close collaboration between product and production development is a special forte of Schaeffler’s.
You’re also offering your customers a co-utilization of research capacities in the Central Laboratory. What are the resulting benefits?
Colleagues from our divisions will predominantly be using the new Central Laboratory. However, we’re sharing our services also with close external partners, who can follow analytical processes online in real time. For our analyses, we use methods of artificial intelligence, for instance in the context of automated fault detection. All of this acceleratesthe development process. For our Lifetime-Documenter program that offers material data from stability tests in machine-readable form as a browser application, we even won an innovation award in 2020.
Offering digital simulation techniques enabling the rapid development of applications for mass production from basic research is one of your declared goals. Will the Central Laboratory be a kind of incubator for the future?
Let me mention a practical example in this context: If you want to optimize a complex system such as a fuel cell stack by observing diverse physical and chemical effects, you need a large number of material characteristics whose experimental determination would incur high costs and require a lot of time. We therefore emphasize modeling of these characteristics using methods of artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze design of experiment-based tests as well as data mining and machine learning methods. The “Lifetime-Predictor” tool we’ve developed uses the data from a large number of in-house and external tests to obtain predictions ranging from the selection of materials to engineering strength.
What are these data used for?
The material data are used in virtual simulation ranging from electric powertrains to electrochemical cells. With their microscopically delicate structures, the complex systems of a fuel cell would require modeling in simulation at such extremes of complexity that their calculation is practically impossible. Therefore, new modeling approaches, so-called multi-scale methods, have been developed further and used for solving such simulation tasks within a very short period of time. This enables us to support the engineering designers in optimizing the packaging of fuel cell stacks efficiently and effectively even before the first prototype has been built. Above and beyond methods for efficient product development, we develop methods for system reliability and system life predictions. Going forward, we’ll therefore have to increasingly deal with interdisciplinary subjects that have not been subjected to a great deal of research so far, such as degeneration mechanisms in fuel cell systems. Ultimately, the engineering designer should directly receive a virtually obtained answer to how his or her design affects reliability and service life. All of this accelerates the processes immensely. Hydrogen electrolyzers and fuel cells are key building blocks for sustainable mobility going forward – also at Schaeffler. The Central Laboratory puts us in a position to tackle these challenges of tomorrow.
A model facility
Not just the laboratories themselves, but the facility in general, designed by baurconsult under the responsibility of Schaeffler Real Estate Management, meets exacting standards. The German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) certifies the Central Laboratory according to its Gold Standard. The chemical foams of the insulation materials on the roof, façade and perimeter insulation meet the requirements concerning halogenated blowing agents and are free from hexabromocyclododecane, a persistent, harmful organic substance. The flooring materials have been awarded the Blue Angel environmental label regarding risk-bearing substances and emissions.
For construction coatings, Schaeffler emphasizes avoidance of exterior and interior VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions and use of solvent-free primers. For the foundation and gravel surfaces, the architects utilize materials that are focused on construction sustainability such as recycled concrete from demolition waste, which significantly reduces the consumption of primary energy.
Considering the sum total of these actions, the Central Laboratory assumes a leading role compared with other laboratory facilities, office and administrative buildings at Schaeffler. These are additional aspects that make the Central Laboratory an important element of the Roadmap 2025 announced last November with which the Schaeffler Group sustainably strengthens its future viability and competitiveness. “The Central Laboratory secures ultra-modern jobs in forward- thinking fields while concurrently enhancing the attractiveness of the location and the region for customers and employees,” says Klaus Rosenfeld, CEO of the Schaeffler Group. “Moreover, it emphasizes our commitment to Germany as a business location.”