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Ⓒ Stefan Bausewein

Lightweight design has recently become a much more significant trend in the auto industry. Even with small components like seals, a great deal of weight can be saved. From Freudenberg’s standpoint, several forward-looking issues come together in these approaches.

In his office, Dr. Ted Duclos, the CTO of Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, is holding up a palm-sized plastic ring.  “I know that it seems very small and insignificant,” he said. “But components like this quickly add up to several kilograms of weight in an engine.” And weight is one of the factors getting special attention from the auto industry – for a range of very different reasons.

Duclos has just returned from the Lightweight Summit in Würzburg, an international gathering of more than 300 experts from industry and research. Specialized lectures, discussion panels and presentations focus on lightweight design in the auto industry and especially in electric mobility. “Lightweight design is a trend,” Duclos said. In the design of classic internal combustion engines because low weight reduces emissions. And for the future of the electric car because reduced weight increases the vehicle’s range. Or to put it another way, lightweight design is one of several trends that are now logically tied to one another.

Faster Production, New Design Freedom

Two major themes, CO2 reduction and electric mobility, are thus promoting the growing interest in lightweight design. “Every bit of weight saved also reduces emissions,” Duclos said. In light of more stringent emissions rules, rising oil prices and very generally the growing importance of sustainability, more engineers are keeping an eye on the overall weight of the car during the design phase. There have been experiments with the replacement of various components with lighter materials for some time in the industry. “This is where seals come into play,” Duclos said.

Lightweight Design - FST Booth Lightweight Summit<figcaption class= Ⓒ Stefan Bausewein" width="401" height="267" data-src="/-/media/images/news/2017/04-2017/booth-stefan-bausewein.ashx?mw=1000" data-loaded="true" />
Ⓒ Stefan Bausewein

The fact that seals made of lightweight materials can contribute to weight reduction is one aspect. The other is that seals are not completely independent components. “A seal is always connected to something. We are connected to a lot of the weight of the vehicle,” he said. That’s why Freudenberg Sealing Technologies has begun developing complete parts in which the seal is already integrated. “Automakers then get the seal right along with the components,” he said. The outcome: simpler, faster production processes – and entire new design freedom for engineers who are no longer tied to old forms and structures.  Freudenberg is in turn expanding its range of production “The crucial factor is our technical knowledge of seal design – the ability to design the seal can be more important than designing the other component,” Duclos said. “We are building on our knowledge when we simultaneously co-develop the components that include seals.”

“We have extremely in-depth knowledge about seals. And we simultaneously have expertise in thinking jointly with the manufacturer about systems and interrelationships."

Ted Duclos, Chief Technology Officer at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies

Materials with Multiple Advantages

Material innovations are especially crucial in these processes. “Freudenberg Sealing Technologies has constantly researched and developed new materials,” Duclos said. At the outset, the work mainly involved elastomers, from natural rubber to synthetic polymers. But there has also been intensive research on advanced, innovative plastics for some time.  This has involved creative ideas with far-reaching prospects – in more ways than one: “It is possible to achieve immense added value by developing materials that, for example, produce less friction,” Duclos said. Ultimately, this is a path that, on balance, can lead to lower emissions as well. Friction and air resistance are the two factors that most influence fuel consumption. The latest result of these considerations: the crankshaft sealing ring Levitex, which seals the engine compartment friction-free.

Thermal management is promising changes as well. It can be considered along with other issues in the development of seals and materials. After all, heat is always a primary issue in energy production. “When we change the thermal characteristics of individual materials, entirely new opportunities for thermal management emerge,” Duclos said. Other innovations will include materials that combine various characteristics: For example, materials as elastic as necessary for sealing and, at the same time, so stable that load-bearing components can be formed from them. Duclos is convinced that this is not a contradiction. “I firmly believe that there is still much research to be done in this area.”

Seals, Components, Systems

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Ⓒ Stefan Bausewein

Little stimulates the desire for innovation as much as a clear view of the goal, Duclos said. This became especially important at the Lightweight Summit. “It was inspiring to see so many different people who are all working on absolutely different approaches to lightweight design advances,” he said. The opportunities are still far from being exhausted even for materials such as aluminum and steel, he added. In Freudenberg Sealing Technologies’ view, people will be watching all these developments.

One of the reactions to Duclos's lecture, which focused on design and materials, came from a supplier. The company told him that it had recently wanted to carry out exactly the same ideas. But it had been unable to find a manufacturer that felt it was capable of combining seals and components, that is, thinking beyond the pure product, “The word had apparently not gotten around enough that we were working in exactly this direction,” Duclos summed up. After all, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies combines two extremely important advantages. “We have extremely In-depth knowledge about seals,” Duclos said. “And we simultaneously have expertise in thinking jointly with the manufacturer about systems and interrelationships."

This article was reposted from Freudenberg's ESSENTIAL Magazine, with permission from Freudenberg Sealing Technologies.