DETROIT — Germany's ZF Friedrichshafen AG is preparing for the auto industry's future by making sure it can provide the most efficient transmissions, sturdy suspensions and a strong electronic infrastructure, but linking all of the parts that go into those systems is the need to be able to make those parts lighter.
That leads the company to high-end composites.
"We are heavily investing because we believe that light weight will be a part of all future technology," CEO Stefan Sommer said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 14. "It's the most efficient [technology] because it's not dependent on different drivetrains or different rules which would change the way we drive."
ZF has been known as a major player in high-end metal systems for decades, but opened its first composite technology center, in Schweinfurt, Germany, in 2013. The center was aimed at studying how to bring fiber-reinforced plastics to structural parts such as springs, struts, links and joints.
It already has an all-plastic brake pedal in production.
"Every kilogram you can remove comes into consideration every time to accelerate or decelerate," Sommer said.
The company has developed a research vehicle with multiple new technology — including an electric drive and composite structural parts — and is running road tests with it now.
ZF recently signed an agreement to sell its Rubber & Plastics business unit to Zhuzhou Times New Material Technology Co. Ltd. of Zhuzhou, Hunan province. That business is mostly rubber-to-metal parts and some commodity plastics, Sommer said. Going forward, the company can now focus its experts in long fiber-reinforced plastics, using both glass and carbon fibers.
"We want to keep all of this technology and know-how in-house, because we see a lot of potential for this in the future," he said.
ZF estimated it already has spent more than 3 million euros ($4.1 million) in equipment and buildings for its new composites center.
Work at the center will focus initially on resin transfer molding to improve processing and develop simulations for future products along with developing individual parts and material joining systems.
ZF currently has a prototype suspension strut and knuckle module which uses a mixture of materials including carbon-fiber and glass-fiber-reinforced plastics, aluminum and high-strength steel.
The part would cut weight by 40 percent.
It is in prototype testing now, which likely will take two to three years before ZF begins to offer it to the customer. Sommer said he would not expect to see it in production until 2018 or possibly 2020, but that timing would fit into the U.S. government's requirement for vehicles to hit 54.5 miles per gallons by 2025.
"Even beyond that, we have had a lot of spinoffs that come from that research into other parts, which would be ready for production earlier," he said.