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Aluminium Structural Cast Aluminium: More Capacity for Premium Cars

Author / Editor: Klaus Vollrath / Janina Seit

Hybrid car bodies made of steel and aluminium have established themselves in Europe. DGS has demonstrated its competence by supplying large structural aluminium castings for the body of the new Mercedes C-Class. The company’s next step is to establish suitable production and logistics structures.

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Mercedes S-Class (“BR222”) showing the position of the rear shock absorber dome.
Mercedes S-Class (“BR222”) showing the position of the rear shock absorber dome.
(Source: Daimler)

Europe’s premium vehicle manufacturers now use hybrid steel/aluminium structures for their car bodies. This technique can achieve considerable weight savings and thus lower fuel consumption. DGS Druckguss Systeme AG operates as a development partner for the worldwide mass production of aluminium castings for vehicles. Soon the company will be setting up production and logistics structures capable of satisfying the needs of European premium manufacturers across the full breadth of the market. This applies not just to development competence and component quality, but also to production capacities and cost structures.

Shifting station: Racks of castings move through a fully automated heat treatment furnace to achieve the desired mechanical properties.
Shifting station: Racks of castings move through a fully automated heat treatment furnace to achieve the desired mechanical properties.
(Source: Klaus Vollrath)

Successful Technology Transfer

“The successful support of Mercedes in the development of aluminium structural castings for the hybrid body of the new Mercedes C-Class was an important breakthrough for us,” says Axel Schmidt, Head of Technology and Sales at DGS in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

The cooperation with Mercedes proved that DGS has all the prerequisites for supplying premium manufacturers not only in respect of niche vehicles, but also for models produced in large numbers worldwide. This also included making the corresponding technology so controllable that DGS could ensure a smooth global supply of parts.

DGS was able to supply three of the four factories worldwide in which Mercedes manufactures the C-Class. Parts for Germany and South Africa come from the DGS plant in Switzerland, while Mercedes’ Chinese plant is supplied by the DGS foundry in Nansha, which had been suitably qualified by personnel from St. Gallen. For production in America, a local casting specialist was technologically supported by experts from DGS.

For the experts from Switzerland, this successful technology transfer was both a challenge and an accolade recognising their high – and expanding – levels of performance. To illustrate the challenge: strategies and procedures for qualification had to be worked out at the overseas locations, neither of which had previous experience with structural castings of this kind. Due to differences in the level of technological mastery, language barriers, and simply different ways of thinking, setting up and implementing serial production abroad was perhaps the biggest challenge in this project. “We at DGS are particularly proud to be the first European die-casting company to have accepted and mastered this enormous challenge,” said Axel Schmidt after the successful start of production.

Stepping into the Breadth of The European Premium Market

“It was already clear to us by this point that we had to reckon with a rapidly growing demand for similar parts for other models and automobile manufacturers in the future,” Axel Schmidt adds. This was obvious from the large number of enquiries and development projects already underway. In addition to Mercedes, DGS was also in discussions with other premium manufacturers such as Audi, Porsche and BMW.

In fact, it was clear that the capacity available in St. Gallen would not be able to meet the demand that was already apparent in Europe alone. Due to the limited space available, there was no way the company could substantially expand capacity at the existing St. Gallen site. A complete new building on a larger site was also out of the question, this time because the strength of the Swiss franc would have raised cost issues for customers, especially for vehicles in the medium and lower price segments.

DGS therefore needed to look for ways to carry out part of its production in cheaper foreign countries – without compromising on the quality for which Swiss firms are known. To meet this challenge DGS became the first European die-casting foundry to start production of large-format structural castings in the Czech Republic.

Gallery with 9 images

The Liberec Plant

“We were able to make a contribution with our modern, high-performance aluminium die-casting foundry,” says Luboš Pfohl, Managing Director of DGS Druckguss Systeme s.r.o. in Liberec, Czech Republic.

Lying in the dynamic industrial region south of the border triangle between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, Liberec has been home to numerous companies in the plastics processing, mechanical engineering and automotive supply industries since the 1990s. The die-casting foundry was established in 1990 as part of the country’s economic liberalisation. From its beginnings as a proverbial garage startup the foundry quickly gained a good reputation, especially within the growing Czech automotive industry.

Planning for expansion: In the next few years, the Liberec site will grow through the addition of up to eight new Bühler Carat die-casting lines. Supporting these will be facilities for melting, heat treatment, machining and surface treatment
Planning for expansion: In the next few years, the Liberec site will grow through the addition of up to eight new Bühler Carat die-casting lines. Supporting these will be facilities for melting, heat treatment, machining and surface treatment
(Source: DGS)

Domestic economic crises and the desire for growth in the West prompted cooperation with a Western partner. This resulted in a takeover by DGS at the turn of the millennium. Since then, the rapidly growing plant in Liberec has developed into an important supplier to European automobile manufacturers. It now provides high-quality, ready-to-install castings to meet the requirements of this very demanding market, meeting both specifications and time schedules precisely.

With intensive support from the parent company in St. Gallen, systematic preparation for the production of structural castings began as early as 2014. For this purpose three state-of-the-art, fully automated Bühler Carat die-casting cells – with clamping forces of 1,300 and 1,600 tonnes – were set up and audited. To accompany the casting machines DGS installed the necessary upstream and downstream logistics chain, including a separate metal input warehouse with its own spectral analysis system, heat treatment and processing equipment, and stations for straightening and inspection.

At the same time, employees were trained accordingly and the company’s internal processes structured to meet the new requirements. Series production of structural castings for the Mercedes S-Class and GLC models started in mid-2015. In the meantime, DGS has continued to develop parts for further vehicles from Porsche, Audi and VW, some of which are now at the sample stage.

Dual Strategy for Optimum Pan-European Logistics

“The two DGS plants are now operating as a team for their European customers,” Axel Schmidt explains. “With different but precisely coordinated performance profiles, they can together cover an exceptionally wide range of services.”

Each location has its own specific advantages. In St. Gallen, DGS has an acknowledged high level of expertise in the development and production of large-format structural castings. This makes the location a sought-after partner for joint projects in the further development of such applications. In addition, the site has space for particularly large die-casting cells rated at up to 3,200 tonnes. The plant will therefore remain indispensable as both a development location and a production site for particularly demanding large-format structural castings.

On the other hand, the Liberec plant will also be able to continuously increase its level of competence thanks to the ongoing transfer of technology and know-how, thus serving other market segments. A further Carat 160 casting line from Bühler was ordered[ Check!] in autumn 2016.

Massive Capacity Expansion in the Czech Republic

“In view of the enormous interest shown, we will be consistently expanding the Liberec site in the coming years,” Luboš Pfohl confirms. Since the existing building areas are already fully occupied, several new halls will be built on a previously undeveloped area of the site. Over the next few years, up to eight new Carat lines with clamping forces up to 2,500 tonnes will be installed here, along with the associated upstream and downstream facilities such as smelting, heat treatment, machining centres and surface treatment.

The Liberec site has plenty of room to grow, and all this future expansion will be backed up by state-of-the-art techniques for plant planning and workflow management. The company also wants to install its own energy plant, plus a new office and personnel wing. “With this expansion, we believe we will be well equipped to meet the emerging market needs for the coming years on a large scale,” Luboš Pfohl says. The start of production in the new plant is currently scheduled for the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.

Gallery with 9 images

This article was first published by Schweizer MaschinenMarkt.

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