At the Open Hybrid LabFactory in Wolfsburg, industry experts and scientists are working on a common goal: They are developing materials and production processes that will enable our cars to shave off weight and, thus, reduce their environmental impact.
“Hybrid” – that is, a mixture – this is the idea that makes the LightweightCampus tick. The reason: The researchers there are mixing materials that have all sorts of different properties, like metal, plastic and textiles, in their hunt to find optimal solutions. The end products of their work will be components for use in serial production that are as light as possible while also being stable and economic.
One glimpse into the heart of the research factory, the Technikum, shows just how this works in practice. One of the factory’s halls is filled by a textile machine that covers a distance of 30 meters, the length of seven Volkswagen Golfs. The sides of the machine are equipped with high racks containing rolls of glass fiber that are fed into the machine by means of spools. The mixing process takes place in the middle section of this gigantic piece of equipment: At certain places, the machine combines the bright glass fibers with dark carbon fibers to create a stable fabric. “Carbon fibers are lighter and more stable than glass fibers. But they are also more expensive,” said Felix Eichleiter, a member of Volkswagen component development and the Managing Director of the Open Hybrid LabFactory e.V.. “An optimal fabric will use carbon fibers in precisely those areas that are subject to special wear. These are exactly the places where they should be used. This is what we are working on here.”
A forming press as tall as a house that marries metal with plastic is located in the hall next door: With the force of 3,600 tons, it presses things like steel into a desired form. Afterward, the metal is introduced to hot liquid plastic, which then cools. “The seat developers at the SITECH company used this press to make the very first component of the Open Hybrid LabFactory – the prototypes of a lightweight-construction backrest,” Eichleiter says. The Technikum is surrounded by 12 labs where experts analyze things like materials and test the quality of hybrid bonds.
One of the special features of the Open Hybrid LabFactory that opened six months ago is the broad alliance that stands behind the research factory: It is a group of 28 partners who collaborate under the leadership of the Lower Saxony Research Center for Motor Vehicle Technology at the Technical University of Braunschweig. The partners include major companies like Volkswagen and ThyssenKrupp, universities and institutes that are part of the Fraunhofer Society. The consortium successfully applied for support from the German government’s research campus program.
The expectations that have been placed on the Open Hybrid LabFactory are high: This campus should set standards in the development of low-emission, safe and reasonably priced vehicles. In the process, it should be a pioneer in research on lightweight automobile construction. Eichleiter said the factory has accepted the challenge. “We are tackling this task head-on,” he said. “Many projects and tests are already under way.” About 130 specialists from the group of partners are currently working at the LightweightCampus. The number is scheduled to rise to more than 200 over the mid-term.
Eichleiter knows that electromobility and digitalization will massively change the face of our vehicles in coming years. But he stresses that the strengths of new hybrid material combinations will not get lost in the shuffle. “Lighter components will always be a plus – no matter whether you are talking about the power plant or the degree of connectedness.”