A period of eureka moments for automotive suppliers

The ‘eureka!’ moment is happening now. That’s the thrust of CoorsTek’s message on how advanced ceramics are influencing the automotive industry at a time of surging consumer interest in electric and hybrid vehicles.

CoorsTek – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of technical ceramics, and one of the oldest, having been established in 1910 – is finding plenty to keep it occupied in the manufacture of ceramic components. The automotive industry is one of four primary markets CoorsTek serves, the other three being the semiconductor industry, energy and chemicals, and custom applications for aerospace and defense, which includes both commercial business and government contracts. The company is a leader in the material space of technical ceramics and it’s here that, according to Steve Pawlowski, the company’s director of automotive strategy, CoorsTek separates itself from the pack.

CoorsTek’s success comes at a time of rapid evolution in automobiles. Safety, performance and comfort have long guided specifications for vehicle manufacturers, but now they’re looking down the supply chain to find where gains can be made in lightweighting for emissions reductions and the industry is being urged to consider simpler or more sustainable materials at the design stage to improve recyclability.

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Cex up view“We have quite extensive products and a large customer base with what I would call our ‘conventional' technologies, and we’re in the process now of transforming and building on our automotive heritage. Like many companies, we are investing in new solutions that will help enable the huge technology trends happening in the automotive and mobility industry globally. More and more cars are becoming electrified and now we’re starting to see the investments needed in energy storage and infrastructure. And then there’s the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) nudging the industry closer to self-driving vehicles,” says Pawlowski.

It’s a trend that’s bringing CoorsTek’s automotive business closer to its semiconductor business (an industry set to benefit enormously from vehicle connectivity and the rollout of 5G), as automobiles are becoming increasingly computer-like. A big chunk of tech business is focused on automotive and mobility solutions, and it’s hard not to notice the dozens of non-traditional technology companies seeking a slice of the pie. For CoorsTek, remaining at the forefront of industry developments means focusing on its core competencies and doubling down in strategic areas of its business – from investing in its people to boosting equipment capabilities.

“There’s a disruption happening, and ceramics — specifically the type of technical ceramics we specialize in – have a big role to play. With our capabilities we are in a good place to help bring these solutions to market efficiently,” says Pawlowski.

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Broadly, innovation is required up and down the supply chain, but there is a pressing need in relation to the environment and “green” regulations. CoorsTek’s work and investment in this area is generally informed by customer requirements and industry forecasts. One clear example is developing solutions to help replace combustion engines with batteries or fuel cells.

But there is an ebb and flow in potential use cases. “Everyone loves the idea of being green, but not everyone is in a position to do so if it stresses the wallet,” says Pawlowski. Barriers to buying include higher purchase costs, the need for infrastructure (charging) investment at home, the possibility of higher insurance costs than traditional vehicles, and the fact that should damage occur it may not be as easy to source new parts. “Everyone wants to be good stewards of the environment, but the industry cannot overlook affordability.”

It means that we’re still at the stage of very early adoption, according to Pawlowski. “Around 2 per cent, 3 per cent tops, of vehicles produced today are actually fully electric,” he says. “But we think that somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the global consuming population would be willing to buy an electric vehicle and convert if there was economic payback within a reasonable timeframe, say three to five years.”

In terms of uptake, there’s likely a false-economy fallacy at play; although an electric vehicle may cost more at the dealership, consumers save significantly on fuel over the operating life. Plus there’s the environmental benefit thanks to no tailpipe emissions.

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As technology and cost to the consumer improve, attraction is set to grow. And CoorsTek is preparing meaningful improvements in manufacturability for advanced ceramic components used in these vehicles.

In fact, according to the Boston Consulting Group, the cost of batteries per kilowatt hour – a measurement used to calculate energy cost per size of the battery – is actually pacing or outpacing the best-case scenario that was projected back in 2017. In short, the rate of cost reduction is going faster than many within the industry believed it would.

“At this trajectory, the experts suggest that around 2023 battery costs will reach $100 per kilowatt hour, which has been cited as a possible inflection point that would allow for mass adoption and equivalent vehicle pricing to consumers,” says Pawlowski.

But there are constraints, including a recent slight reduction in global vehicle sales – although there is anticipation that growth will resume.

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Pawlowski, however, isn’t concerned. “It’s how the world works. When economic dips happen, the automotive industry is always hit, but it cycles back aggressively. It’s one of the fastest markets to rebound.”

Looking to the future, CoorsTek has identified key areas that it believes will be instrumental to the success of electric vehicles making their way in large volumes into the market – all of which are areas that the company will have an opportunity to support and assist with its technologies. These include power conversion to enable drivers to gain more distance from a battery charge; the management of batteries and thermal systems for safety; the potential move to solid state batteries and alternative forms of energy storage, for which the company already has a group developing technology for hydrogen fuel generation; and the use of engineered ceramic components in advanced sensors and other driver assistance systems.

If you would like to learn more about how CoorsTek is fulfilling market requirements by enabling a clean, electrified, and efficient future, register for Ceramics Expo Conference 2020, taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, May 5–6, where Steve Pawlowski will be sharing more on advanced ceramic materials as a disruptive technology for green applications, plus insights on how market requirements are likely to change in the next five years.

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