Herwig Fischer stretches both hands into the air, like a conductor, pointing to the machines and employees—first with his left hand, then with his right. In the large hall in front of him, carbon fibers are stored on large spools, and huge press machines form automotive components from what are known as preforms. Although Fischer, head of the two sites, has often taken visitors on tours of SGL’s Austrian sites in Ried and Ort im Innkreis before, you can still sense his enthusiasm.
The SGL facilities are located in an idyllic setting around sixty kilometers northeast of Salzburg. Here, SGL Carbon is advancing series production in lightweight construction with fiber-reinforced synthetics. The composite production facility in Ried arose from a manufacturing site belonging to the sporting goods producer Fischer—the company had already been working on lightweight components for the automotive industry for several years around the turn of the millennium and today still manufactures high-performance skis in the immediate vicinity.
What we are doing here with carbon and other fibers is a bit of the future for car bodywork—regardless of whether the vehicle is powered by an electric motor or a combustion engine.
Herwig Fischer, Head of the two Austrian SGL facilities in Ried and Ort im Innkreis
In 2009, SGL Carbon and the automotive supplier Benteler purchased part of the ski manufacturer’s facility in Ried im Innkreis district. In the Benteler-SGL joint venture, the companies subsequently established a center of excellence for lightweight applications. The unique facilities and projects became the cornerstone for today’s high-volume production, which has helped make SGL one of the world’s market leaders.
Every day, the two plants under SGL management in Ried and Ort mass-produce a large number of components, including spoilers for the Porsche 911 GT3, rear panels for the Audi R8, component sets for the BMW i3 and leaf springs for various Volvo models. “These sorts of things really didn’t exist until just a few years ago,” Fischer says.
“It’s still a very young industry.” For SGL Carbon, the Austrian facilities are an important component in its new strategic alignment. About a year ago, the company acquired the shares from its joint venture partner Benteler, closing the final gap in the value chain for composite components. The precursor, the raw material for producing carbon fibers, is made in Portugal, while the fibers themselves are manufactured in the United States and in Scotland. Additional processing is carried out by employees at various locations in Germany and the finished components are produced in Austria.
Component production is part of SGL’s core business. “Some customers are satisfied enough with the guidance they receive from the colleagues in the Lightweight and Application Center in Meitingen, Germany and also with the material,” Fischer explains, “and decide to take on the final production steps themselves.” Others, in contrast, would like the entire component from SGL Carbon. “That’s where we come into play,” he adds.
“A mixture of manual and mechanical production is a good idea, particularly for complex components,” says Team Leader Production Gerhard Traunwieser, who supervises part of the production in Ried. This also holds true for the spoiler on the Porsche GT3. Production begins in Ried as soon as the fine fiber mats are delivered. A so-called cutter trims them to the desired size with an ultrasonic knife while the material is still dry before being impregnated with synthetic resin.
The trimmed mat pieces are then molded. After these preforms have been produced, the component starts to take shape. Carbon fibers are perfect for producing geometrically complex components with an especially efficient use of materials. The fibers are placed in the component in exactly the quantity and orientation required for the GT3 spoiler to attain the curves of the design yet simultaneously remain as lightweight as possible.
Now an employee places the preform into the machine. The press closes and creates a vacuum in its interior, and then precise quantities of synthetic resin and hardener are injected inside. Finally, the part hardens. This method is used to produce the spoiler’s outer shell, inner shell, inner shell cover, the two air scoops and the wings. During the process, a stable core of liquid wax is cast as a support for the specific composite components. This is later melted out, creating a hollow structure. “This makes the part even lighter,” Traunwieser explains.
Depending on the specific needs, manual production is still a very suitable method for production, even today. Every day this brings more knowledge about production processes, knowledge that often forms the basis for mass production on the assembly line.
Fischer, a native to the region, has been managing operations in Ried and Ort since early 2018. He studied logistics management and served in various positions during the development of the locations, from the joint venture to the acquisition by SGL in 2009. He is driven about his work—as a well-organized, technophile businessman, he enjoys being the connective link between employees, specialist topics and mass production.
These character traits are important, given the continual transformation of the plants. While a lot of production work is still completed by hand in Ried, the manufacturing facility in Ort im Innkreis—with a footprint of ten thousand square meters, about as large as a Manhattan city block—is mostly fully automatic. The manufacturing systems were set up from scratch back in 2012 and include around one hundred different, often directly interlocking, individual automated processes.
In order to keep track of this complexity, Fischer and his most important employees meet in the control room every day at nine in the morning. Outside the room the machines are springing back and forth, humming and buzzing, while inside the walls are decorated with diagrams and evaluations from the previous shift. “We monitor and control the production in here,” Fischer explains. How high was the previous shift’s output? Were there any incidents? What about the quality of the components? “All this information comes together here and it is up to us to draw conclusions and decide what steps may need to be taken.”
A finished leaf spring comes off the end of the assembly line every few moments. Even quality control and the documentation via two-dimensional code labels is automated.
Robert Hütter, Director Sales and Program Management Automotive for SGL Carbon in Austria.
In the factory, the robots work completely autonomously, grabbing, sorting and rotating components along the production line. This is how the leaf springs for Volvo are produced. The component demonstrates how SGL’s focus and its facilities have evolved. “We’re no longer just supplying customers with material, but are also offering solutions and project support from a single source,” Robert Hütter says. He and his team are responsible for Volvo in the SGL Carbon sales team. He continues: “This approach has for instance enabled us to build half a million leaf springs a year for Volvo.” Hütter, who was also born in Austria, has helped build and expand the production facilities here and the manufacturing for Volvo over the years. He often travels around the world to work with SGL customers to find exactly the solutions they want.
The Volvo leaf springs roll off the assembly line in two rows. Just like in Ried, the preforms are first trimmed, placed in the press molds, mixed with resin under pressure, hardened and then milled to completion. But everything happens automatically in Ort.
This high degree of automation is also winning over more and more customers. Additional development projects for machine-based serial production in the automotive sector have long been underway — including broadening the expertise in leaf springs to an alternative manufacturing technology and an additional mass-production project with another major automobile manufacturer. According to what Fischer says, they will soon be producing ultra-light and extremely sturdy components for use in other fields such as the aerospace industry.
The transformation from a ski manufactory to a high-tech production center and pioneer facility for mass-produced lightweight applications could still go much, much further. The best time is just beginning for Fischer, Hütter and the 250 employees in Ried and Ort.