Mobility of the future will need lightweight design to facilitate vehicles that generate few emissions and conserve resources. For this reason, Volkswagen joined forces with highly respected industrial and scientific partners in 2012 to open the Open Hybrid LabFactory (OHLF). The goal: to develop innovative production processes and materials. In the beginning, it was a matter of creating structures for the partnership and defining the focal points of the factory’s research. Today, the factory’s leadership is working to network research projects to one another and optimize processes. A factory tour.
This is really a story about a raw diamond that needs to be cut. Or a field of ideas on which creative experts find the richest soil to cultivate innovative solutions for mass automobile production. Because engineers rarely use such flowery language, the research campus is simply called the “OHLF,” an abbreviation that stands for Open Hybrid LabFactory. “The project is a unique opportunity,” Martin Zubeil says. “We are now focusing on bundling various areas of expertise so that all actors and, of course, the Volkswagen Group can get the best-possible use from our work.”
Zubeil, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering, is sitting in one of the conference rooms on the fourth floor of the factory. It is a perch from which the entire machinery park of the research factory spreads out before him. Zubeil became the managing director of the Open Hybrid LabFactory in Wolfsburg at the beginning of the year. Three floors down, huge presses, injection-molding machines, impregnating systems and textile equipment fill a 2,500 m2 hall, the Technikum. The Technikum is flanked by 12 labs where material properties are analyzed, process and quality tests are conducted and process parameters for manufacturing systems are determined. The goal: to develop hybrid components and their production processes and to play a pace-setting role in automotive lightweight design – low emission, safe and economic.
As Zubeil notes, lightweight design must be cost effective. Expensive carbon fibers are used in a very targeted manner. On occasion, they also are combined with fiber glass, plastics or metals. “When the qualities of other components or additional functions are integrated into lightweight products, component costs can remain neutral in comparison with today’s series solutions,” he says. This means one thing: keeping it as cost efficient as possible. To examine every development from top to bottom, the entire value chain is displayed in the Open Hybrid LabFactory – from a fiber to the completed component and recycling.
“We come up with ideas that would hardly be imaginable during the daily operations of production companies.”
Industry developers team up with scientific researchers and work in an interdisciplinary manner on ideas that, ideally, will result in innovations. One key benefit: With the help of a number of different partners, the Open Hybrid LabFactory makes it possible to conduct very risky research. Around 200 employees of the various partners are currently working at the OHLF. On this particular Thursday, some of them are meeting in conference rooms or are working in small groups in the labs or on the machinery. In the Technikum, two employees are standing in front of a system to optically measure component deformations under the influence of temperature. They are watching the analytical evaluation process on a monitor. Hybrid components made of various materials behave in a complex manner under the influence of temperature. “Information about deformation behavior plays a key role in component development and production,” Zubeil says.
The Life Cycle Design & Engineer Lab is buzzing with activity at the moment. A dozen project engineers and scientific staff members are sitting in front of monitors and are energetically discussing the latest developments. Colleagues leave the lab every few minutes so that they can make an uninterrupted phone call.
In the neighboring labs, scientific staff members are concentrating on their experiments. In one of the areas, test methods are being analyzed in order to facilitate the identification of damage to carbon structures. In another lab that is the size of a garage, time-lapsed simulations of the impact of weather can be conducted: salt, frost, rain – just like in nature. “Working at the campus is a dream come true for the scientific staff members,” Andreas Gross said. The engineer serves as the managing director who oversees the scientific section of the Open Hybrid LabFactory. “The machinery is state of the art, and the communication channels are short,” Gross says. “Our developers have an opportunity here to determine process parameters in small labs. Later, they can apply them to optimize production processes in major systems.”
The top priority of the collaboration is to jointly develop know-how and to facilitate knowledge transfers among project actors. The collaboration occurs via interfaces in cross-departmental teams in order to tap the potential of various areas of expertise. “The collaboration work is done among equals here,” Gross says. “On occasion, responsibility for certain tasks will be shifted within the entire project.” It is an approach that reflects the true spirit of this public-private partnership.
The foremost goal of the OHLF is to put the research results into practice and, thus, to transfer them into the processes and products of mass automobile production. In its work, the research factory continuously churns out results that benefit all parties involved: Because new forms of collaboration are created. Because employees are introduced to new materials and learn to work with them. Or because the participants get to know a new and open corporate culture that they can introduce in their own companies as well.
Creation and financing of the OHLF
In 2012, the Open Hybrid LabFactory, a research facility launched by the Lower Saxony Research Center for Automotive Engineering at the Technical University of Braunschweig and Volkswagen, beat out 100 applicants and became one of nine winners of the support initiative “Research Campus – Public-Private Partnership for Innovation” sponsored by the German Ministry for Education and Research.
Since then, the ministry has been supporting OHLF projects for a maximum of 15 years. The state of Lower Saxony and the city of Wolfsburg have provided additional funding. Money provided by members of the association has flowed into infrastructure and system technology, too. The full members include the Technical University of Braunschweig, BASF SE, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe AG and Volkswagen AG. The work also involves a large number of project partners.
In addition, Volkswagen Group Research, Components, Development and Production conduct research in a synergistic manner as part of numerous projects conducted under the joint umbrella of the OHLF. In the process, they serve as driving forces of project activities on the research campus.