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“The weight of components is an important factor”

Autoneum is the global market leader in acoustic and thermal management for vehicles. As the head of the R&D department, Maurizio Mantovani explains the transformations currently under way across the industry.

From the outside, the site features a stark-looking hangar and a few buildings that resemble more of a barracks or a school. Despite its appearance, this is where Autoneum invents the high-tech future of the automobile. At these unassuming headquarters located in Winterthur, the Swiss company – the global leader in acoustic and thermal management solutions for vehicles – develops new materials and products for nearly all car manufacturers around the globe. While industrial-scale production takes place at the group’s many factories, the Zurich-based lab acts as a lifesize testing ground, packed with the latest technology. The Italian-born Maurizio Mantovani, who leads the unit, received us for an interview.

In terms of sound and thermal insulation, what new challenges do you face with electric cars?

Electric vehicles are different in several ways. First of all, contrary to popular belief, they are not always silent. After a certain speed, aerodynamic and tyre noise – not engine noise – is most noticeable in a modern premium car. Drivers of electric vehicles like the silence at low speeds, and are often surprised by the noise created at higher speeds. They’re also more sensitive to noise caused by braking or air conditioning, for example.

What solutions have you developed for electric cars?

For example, we use new materials to encapsulate the electric powertrains, which generate less vibration and heat than internal combustion engines. The materials can therefore be lighter and tuned to the unpleasant high sound frequencies typical of this type of propulsion that need to be filtered.

The weight of components is an important factor, more so than for internal combustion engine vehicles. High weight reduces the car’s range, which is already limited in an electric car. These innovations actually also benefit x-cars powered by internal combustion engines. For instance, to reduce tyre noise, we’ve recently launched an ultra-lightweight textile wheelhouse outer liner called Alpha-Liner.

 

“We’ve already started exploring very futuristic solutions based on biomaterials”

 

Do you work with tyre manufacturers?

Absolutely. The challenge is difficult for them because reducing noise and optimising the tyre’s adherence to the road and its durability are contradictory objectives. Tyre makers have to find the best compromise between safety, road handling, durability and acoustic comfort. That’s why you can’t sell a tyre that doesn’t make any noise. Tyre manufacturers are working to reduce this noise at the source, and we’re working to contain it as best we can. So it’s in our interest to work with them on these issues, as well as with carmakers.

What areas of innovation are you currently working on?

In addition to continuing to reduce noise from the road with absorbing and insulating components in the interior and under the floor of the car, we are developing solutions to encapsulate the powertrain even more effectively. Both areas are key to reducing exterior noise, which is regulated by laws that are becoming stricter and stricter.

Environmental sustainability of our materials is another key area. We offer a number of fully recyclable parts and plan to replicate this approach for different product ranges. In fact, we’ve already started exploring very futuristic solutions based on biomaterials. Already today, we are renowned for our multifunctional components that combine sound and thermal insulation. Our most lightweight sound-absorbing textile parts are also effective thermal insulators. Working on this type of solution kills two birds with one stone and significantly reduces weight, thereby lowering fuel consumption and CO2 emissions as well as improving driving range. This is crucial particularly for e-cars, because in situations of extreme temperatures, up to 25% of the energy from the battery in an electric car goes to heating or cooling.

What progress is being made in the automotive industry to develop new acoustic and thermal insulation technologies?

Enormous progress has been made over the past few decades, and in every area. Advances are made constantly. Acoustic comfort in cars continues to improve.

Isn’t there a point where gains become only marginal?

The curve tends to flatten out slightly, but that’s the case for many areas of technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, the leaps forward were huge, because we were starting almost from scratch. When Autoneum came out with ultra-light components in 1998, it revolutionised everything. Before that, sound insulation was always achieved with heavy materials similar to rubber. The idea was to design a “wall” protection that was as airtight as possible to keep noise outside the vehicle. But the engineers realised that this wasn’t always the most efficient approach because there were always gaps, needed for assembly. So we allowed some reduction in insulation to focus more on the best way to absorb sound. That’s what we’re working on constantly improving since then.

Are improvements due more to materials used or to manufacturing processes?

Materials are only one part of the equation. Upstream, we use specialized simulation tools we have developed to better understand and control the physics of wave and heat propagation and vehicle acoustics and vibrations. Moving forward, we can develop innovative production technologies and increasingly effective materials. What we call “design methodology” is also a very important aspect in our work. It’s not just about having the best technology, but also using it in the most relevant way possible in each vehicle.

How do you work with carmakers? And at which step in the process of designing a new model do you come in?

We have long-term partnerships with our customers. Usually, vehicle manufacturers approach us before the development of a new car, to jointly evaluate acoustic components in the pre-development phase. This dialogue is crucial for achieving breakthrough innovations and revolutionary new approaches.

How do you deal with the uncertainty of developing electric cars? This market transformation requires huge efforts in R&D, even though only 2% of the global vehicle fleet are electric vehicles.

That’s why we don’t focus our attention only on electric vehicles (EVs). Although it’s growing, the EV market is not going to suddenly take over the market for internal combustion cars. The transition will be gradual, and it will take time. That’s also good for car manufacturers. Some choose to develop platforms that can be used to make different types of engine – from internal combustion to hybrid, plug-in hybrid, to electric, where common components can be adopted.

We don’t think that internal combustion engines will disappear within the next 10 or even 20 years. Hybrid vehicles still have a good many years to go.

You announced that you considerably upgraded your R&D centre last year. What type of improvements have you made?

Among others, we have modernized the material-testing laboratory. There, new technologies and components are being examined and validated – including substances that absorb unpleasant odours inside the vehicle and thus improve air quality. This is key for shared and also private mobility, particularly in China. Chinese customers especially are very sensitive to the smell of plastic, which they associate with chemicals. This area of research didn’t exist 10 years ago, and we’ve invested a lot in it, in terms of both skills and equipment.

What sets Autoneum apart from its competitors?

We’re different in many ways. One very important aspect is that we’re clearly the global market and innovation leader in our product segment. Our customer base covers practically every car maker in the world. One car out of three worldwide is equipped with an Autoneum component. That means collecting a huge amount of feedback from our customers, synthesising it and constantly staying on the cutting edge of innovation. We also offer a broader product range for all types of drives than some of our competitors, which typically focus on only one or two products. Furthermore, we develop measurement systems which are industry benchmark and used by carmakers and competitors alike. For example, we recently launched a measurement system called “Carpet Cleanability Analyzer”, which manufacturers use to test their carpet texture to make cleaning as easy and effective as possible.

In 2017, you opened a new R&D hub in Sunnyvale, in Silicon Valley. What is the purpose of that centre?

The “Competence Center New Mobility” facilitates contact with companies based in Silicon Valley. Particular focus lies on projects that examine the use of new technologies and innovative materials – for example bio-degradable materials – for noise and heat protection. Companies there are more inclined to explore unprecedented solutions, e.g. in areas such as biotechnology or specific solutions for robo-taxis. They’re more willing to accept the risk that comes with innovation. In exchange, we benefit from their input.

Your list of customers is impressive. Nearly all carmakers are on it. But not Tesla, even though they’re based in Silicon Valley...

Tesla produces in California where we do not operate a manufacturing site. But this does not mean that Tesla will never benefit from our products, let’s see. However, today we already equip most of the electric vehicle models globally available for EV carmakers such as Renault, Nissan, Audi and the new Chinese manufacturers Nio and Aiways.

What are the advantages of keeping your R&D department in Switzerland?

We can attract talents from many countries around the world. The research environment is very stimulating in the Zurich region, especially with ETH. Furthermore, having our R&D centre based at the company’s headquarters also helps us stay in close contact with the top management.

 


 

AUTONEUM

Lacklustre market

  • Foundation: 2011
  • Headquarter: Winterthour (CH)
  • Revenues: CHF 2.28 MRD (2018)
  • Effectives: 12'946

With its undisputed global leadership, abundant R&D budget, lightweight and recyclable products geared up for the electric revolution, and 55 production sites worldwide delivering to all markets, Autoneum has a lot of advantages on its side. Nearly all car makers feature among its customers. But the Winterthur- based firm is grappling with a sluggish economy, amid declining global car production. On top of the overall market slowdown, production problems at two of the group’s US plants – in South Carolina and Indiana – have affected performance over the past few months. Although these issues are seemingly on their way to being resolved (revenue in local currencies for the first half of the year rose 1.9%), the company aims to substantially improve its earnings in 2020 and return to sound profitability levels by 2021. Meanwhile, analysts are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Autoneum has invested heavily in new sites (ed. note: especially in China), at a time when the global market downturn is hitting home,” notes Torsten Sauter from Kepler Cheuvreux. “In this kind of environment, the group will have to demonstrate that it can maintain its margins and cash flow.”

 
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