Without a doubt one of the main trends of the global automotive market is the “electrification” process, the electric transition of cars, both in terms of engine options as well as numerous auxiliary circuits. There is no stopping this process, although it is characterised by a highly diversified progression, both in temporal and geographic terms, sometimes giving rise to uncertainties or slowdowns that can cause insecurity in companies involved. Numerous aspects come into play in this scenario: international contingencies, regulatory approaches or government decisions, along with an array of social and infrastructure characteristics across the continents and in different countries. Moreover, natural issues that typically arise from such profound changes to production in a sector as conservative as this one are significantly impacting the market and industrial policies.
In this issue of the magazine we review how Meccanotecnica Umbra is responding to the demands of a complex and evolving solution, yet again by leveraging its intrinsic qualities that have secured its success.
Sooner or later the transition to electric mobility will be necessary. The process is irreversible: it is a consequence of the great ecological transition, strongly incentivised and supported by national governments and supranational organisations. However, we will witness gradual and diversified steps over time and in different geographic areas: it is safe to expect considerable differences in what will happen in China, Europe, the United States and Brazil, due to different types of journeys and distances covered by vehicles, the presence or otherwise of infrastructures, and regulatory approaches in each country. In no way does this scenario jeopardise investments made by Meccanotecnica, as the logics of localisation, the management of materials and assembly lines, shall progressively transform to support innovation. This will probably require extra lines for the mass production of smaller seals, however the transition will be more gradual than expected four or five years ago.
Lucky for us there will always be pumps, so we will still have business continuity. Electric pumps will progressively integrate and partly replace mechanical pumps for the circulation of coolant fluid, in which our mechanical seals are currently used, with a global market share of nearly 30%. We'll still need to prepare ourselves to make seals for electric pumps, which for most light vehicles or auxiliary pumps, including those for larger vehicles, will be very similar to the pumps developed for the domestic appliance sector, of which Meccanotecnica Umbra is the undisputed market leader. This gives us an enormous advantage over competitors in the automotive industry, and rewards our work.
It would be easy to mistake this for luck, but ability is what it really comes down to: our Group's capacity for research and the development of solutions has generated a wealth of transversal knowledge, giving rise to applications that often transcend the initial purposes of development.
The electric transition is intrinsically complex by nature: electrification is about so much more than just engines and, as previously mentioned, will increasingly involve the electric transformation of auxiliary circuits of combustion engines (still present in hybrid vehicles), especially for cooling processes, in which electric pumps will be increasingly used. We manufacture a sub-component of cooling systems and their transformation in electric systems, including hybrid or full-electric ones, enables the optimisation of heat flows in the entire vehicle, so-called thermal management, so as to reduce energy consumption, boost autonomy and lastly, reduce CO2 emissions, in line with increasingly stringent legislation in Europe and beyond.
This requires the development of specific mechanical seals for electric pumps, with low power absorption, essential for reducing vehicle energy consumption.
Some of our parts are also effective in brushless pumps, which are solutions developed thanks to our experience in the domestic appliance sector. We even provide valid solutions for traction motors fitted in electric vehicles, which are yet to be accepted by the market, because a certain degree of circuit complication is required: the positive effects on performance need to be developed to improve attractiveness here. Greater efficiency due to internal rotor cooling and improved energy use will justify the presence of these solutions, because rotor cooling requires specialised seal solutions for high speed rotation, which will no longer be internal only. We have already designed this project but currently it has been put on hold as we tackle the challenge of effectively balancing costs and advantages.
Downstream from the electric engine there is always a transmission, which according to the type of engine lay out, rotates at a very high speed (greater than the rotation speed of a normal gearbox), requiring special, low friction seals that do not undermine performance. Here we are able to leverage all our skills and competence developed in 55 years of research into optimal seal solutions. In a field with transmissions rotating at rates of 20-25,000, keeping friction under control is fundamental in preventing seals from absorbing most of the vehicle's power.
When all is said and done, keeping friction under control is the transversal key to success for all applications.
Considering that 100 million vehicles are estimated for the future, 40% of which will be electric, 30% hybrid and the remainder with internal combustion, we are still talking about millions of engines with pumps fitted as they will require internal cooling. In a situation in which providing optimal answers increasingly requires technical skills, internal production capacity and the ability to keep up with intense competition, we can safely say we trust that Meccanotecnica Umbra will continue to play a key role on the world stage.
We will continue to manufacture sufficient numbers of current products to sustain profit and our efforts to complete highly innovative projects, including purely electric ones.
In the meantime we will sustainably manage the transition to seals for electric pumps, underpinned by our ability to respond to all new requirements. Yet again our aptitude for differentiated research will generate a competitive edge, with our very own tried and tested approach that emerges in the face of unexpected change. An example of this can be seen in just how many players of the electric engine sector had no previous experience with car water pumps: Meccanotecnica Umbra was able to identify fundamental aspects of coolant fluid circulation, as it has already tackled these problems in other applications.
Meccanotecnica first responded to the new scenario driven by the electric transition several years ago, thanks to relations developed with an important international player of the automotive industry that is also a supplier of major car manufacturers. We can safely say that we grew together, in terms of the development of sealing solutions for electric traction motors, especially those commonly referred to as eAxles. We entered a whole new world, characterised by specifics that are drastically different from our normal parameters, albeit still with reference to engine cooling systems. The high rotation speeds are the main difference: from 5,000 rpm, standard for the automotive sector with cooling systems for traditional combustion engines (except for a handful of special or niche applications, exceeding 7000 rpm), we found ourselves having to manage a project requiring speeds close to 20,000 rpm, standard for an electric engine, a huge difference. Basically we have had to radically overhaul our approach, as such speeds give rise to a whole set of complications. The technical department embraced this new and complex challenge by drawing from previous experiences of Meccanotecnica in a winning way: all the work in aeronautics turned out to be fundamental insofar as it involved the development of applications characterised by very high speeds (up to 30,000 rpm). Once more in the recent history of our company we have witnessed a sort of cross-fertilisation between radically different applications, culminating in an important result:
the Meccanotecnica Umbra approach to continuous research permeates all steps in production processes and departments, often giving rise to valid answers even in the most surprising situations.
The R&D department is on the front line in this transition phase and just like with all new products, the project idea alone is not enough: additional efforts are necessary in order to identify technologies for the adequate and effective testing of the new solution. Thus it is clear to see just how important it is to have a client that requires a specific solution, no matter how difficult and challenging: this is what accelerates time to market and enables us to develop a real solution, one that actually has to pass the testing phase.
When we talk about the electric passage, as far as the automotive sector is concerned we need to understand
we are in a phase of transition in which industrial processes are adjusting to change, the sustainability of which has been challenged, and all this is strongly conditioning projects under development.
Despite the ubiquity and importance of this topic, we have still come up against different forms of resistance on the market. The sector's inertia also comes down to the fact that electric engine production is still in its early stages of development and is having to contend with rapidly changing specifications and requirements. For example, it is not unknown for the traction system to be changed even during project development: despite being in an early stage and with a well defined project, the specifications and information we were provided with for one project changed even faster than normal.
Current economic conditions and the international political scenario have slowed things down even further: mistrust is rife as to the immediate sustainability of the electric engine, resulting in extreme caution among all players involved.
In our opinion electric car design is far from defined: there are numerous evolving aspects that need to be fine tuned, also in terms of future perspectives.
Suffice to say numerous issues remain unresolved, such as battery management, weights, the cooling of battery sets, or the fact that cabin air conditioning (apparently trifle) significantly impacts a series of technical choices that influence us in some way. Yet again there has been a shift in the scenario: electric cars impose a set of specific needs in addition to the "simple" cooling of an internal combustion vehicle. This has made them highly complex in terms of cooling circuits, requiring the simultaneous operation of different systems, with different conditions and processes. This is actually an advantage for Meccanotecnica: initially we saw the dawn of the electric engine as a threat to our reference market (since the electrification of systems and therefore the cooling pump, which from purely mechanical, so driven by the motor shaft, implies the installation of an electric motor, which makes it independent in terms of rotation speed, and in some cases can do without a mechanical seal), upon exploring various scenarios we saw this wasn't true, also because brushless systems continue to be less reliable compared to brushed ones, in which we have acquired extensive know-how, meaning that we are able to deliver concrete and reliable solutions. Secondly, we were used to a project development approach based on a single cooling pump being fitted in a car, so one pump with one seal. This set up has since been radically overhauled: the pumps are smaller, but focus has shifted towards the coexistence of several cooling systems, meaning three or four in a single vehicle.
Paradoxically our initial fear of disappearing due to the electrification of the pump has been radically overturned:
we are now challenged by immense project development efforts, requiring us to work with very different technical specifications in the same macro project. An understandable need for the optimisation of space and size means we are currently oriented towards very compact systems, with the need to shrink everything to a minimum, sealing system included. This has pushed research to the limits, concentrating everything in a maximum diameter of 20 mm (with the coexistence of up to 10 parts), half the normal size.
All this is still a transition phase and crucial for developing an understanding of the real applicability of the electric engine.
This phase is far from established and includes different approaches, including one based on a specific cooling system and another on a more streamlined project design approach that tends to use what is already in place, without the addition of specific accessories, also in line with the vehicle category, with better cars that can be fitted with specific systems.
As far as we are concerned, the biggest challenge in this phase is not so much in terms of production as the fact that we must embrace project methods that are radically new to us.
We have had to build on our knowledge of electric engines, understand the keys to project design, so as to define the new operating scenario.
In this sense our partnership with the University of L’Aquila (a hub of excellence in electric engine design) has been invaluable in keeping up to date with project development aspects.
After all the cooling process is just as important for electric engines as it is for internal combustion ones.
Our product plays a key role in all areas and engines where it is applied: we continue to be fundamental for engine operation, as if it isn't cooled, it can't operate and is irreversibly damaged. In this delicate and complex scenario, conditioned by project development, production and contextual issues, unreliable solutions may cause problems for the entire industry, in a highly "inert" sector like the automotive one, which has always tended to shy away from strongly innovative solutions. It is a highly cautious market that is quick to fall back on its previous position at the slightest hint of trouble, meaning that we need to go that extra mile in proving performance and reliability. Such trust must be earned by through work and by providing quality.