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Maintaining material quality as the automotive industry undergoes a technological revolution

Author: Matt Kreiner (pictured), global product business development manager - coatings, at Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science

Tough legislation on carbon emissions and fierce competition are forcing manufacturers to innovate across the automotive supply chain.

Some of the key standards to be met by the industry include Euro 6, the World Harmonised Light Vehicle Testing Procedure (WLTP), China 6 and TS 16949 and requirements are getting increasingly stringent.

As the sector strives to comply with various regulations, automation, Industry 4.0 and revolutionary new automobile design concepts are taking the industry closer towards a world of connected vehicles and modern electric vehicles (EV).

The pace of change, however, means the automotive industry faces new challenges.

Connected vehicles and EVs contain a myriad of complex components and require new material specifications too.

These present fresh analysis and quality control requirements across the supply chain - from foundries, fabricators, plating and coating facilities, to electronics component manufacturers, battery producers, vehicle manufacturers and recycling plants. That means analysis technology, like X-ray fluorescence (XRF) also needs to adapt to support the new innovations.

Unlocking the opportunity of connected cars

There were an estimated 64 million cars produced in 2019 that had connectivity capability, and that figure is set to grow. It is forecast that 18% of households in China will have a connected car by 2023. With a focus on the premium market, the possibilities for innovation once a car has connectivity are huge.

Driver aids include in-car entertainment, navigation, real-time congestion information, and car wear and tear monitoring.

Other innovations focus on using data collected to tackle larger issues, such as reducing CO2 emissions.

Possibly the most revolutionary change is autonomous vehicle technology, utilising sensors, software and artificial intelligence (AI) to connect vehicles to each other and traffic management systems, to enable automobiles to transport passengers without the need for a driver.

Connected cars are a real opportunity for electronics manufacturers. But, as circuit board volumes increase, high throughput analysis is required to help ensure quality is maintained. Firms need to consider investing in technology that is effective today and which is future-proofed for tomorrow’s operations.

Benchtop XRF analysers offer a long-term solution to address this challenge of achieving fast, accurate analysis of the ultra-thin coatings used in electronic components, increasing productivity and reducing costs of out-of-specification coatings on parts such as PCBs, semiconductors and micro connectors.

Meeting the challenges of modern EV production

A new generation of modern EVs is emerging to help to reduce particulate emissions from vehicles that are a risk to health, particularly in our planet’s major cities. China is leading the way on adoption of new energy vehicles (NEV) - a Chinese term for vehicles that are partially or fully powered by electricity - with the aim of achieving 25% of all car sales in 2025.

This revolution on our roads brings fresh challenges for the industry.

EVs and hybrids contain a myriad of complex components and new material specifications.

EV manufacturers are also under increasing pressure to reduce circuit board and electronic component coating thickness waste, tramp and trace elements, and to re-use scrap material. Comprehensive materials analysis must, therefore, be an integral part of verifying material specifications right across the supply chain to ensure all components meet desired standards.

In addition to quality control measures, another area that’s of concern in EVs is the control of substances hazardous to health. XRF analysis solves this problem and provides accurate, fast detection of these substances, to ensure components meet the stringent RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directives and environmental regulations.

EVs pose another significant challenge for manufacturers.

Offering the longest vehicle range, lithium ion batteries are the most commonly used power source. While an established technology, lithium ion battery manufacturers must still be vigilant about quality issues that could lead to localized overheating and premature failure.

It essential, therefore, to control the size and distribution of metal particles within the cell. Larger particles near the central separator are riskier than smaller particles nearer to the cathode current collector.

In this instance, there are two main analytical techniques for quality control: X-ray transmission allows battery manufacturers to see the size and shape of the metal particles within the cells, while X-ray fluorescence tells you exactly what those particles are.

With demand for EVs increasing globally, organizations considering analytical instruments to support with quality control for battery production must ensure they facilitate high speed analysis. Batteries are a costly EV component, so fast and accurate analysis early in the manufacturing process enables teams to identify and rectify issues before it becomes too costly or late.

Conclusion

The pace of industry innovation brings crucial quality control challenges throughout the automotive supply chain and materials analysis technology must evolve to meet changing demands. The continued development and application of technologies like XRF is bringing huge potential to unlock commercial value. 

Whether its miniaturized electronics, complex components in EVs or lithium ion batteries, specialised analysers are available to enable organisations to maintain essential materials quality across the full automotive production cycle. Choosing the right analytical tools for every stage of the automotive development process is critical to ensure commercial success in a highly competitive and fast-changing market.

Continued innovation in this field will be vital to help the automotive industry meet its challenges both today and looking ahead to a connected, modern electric vehicle future.

About the author

Matt Kreiner is Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science’s product manager for their coatings analysis products.  He has seventeen years experience working with XRF technology, starting his career as an applications engineer.  Matt resides in Chicago and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University. 

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