BERLIN: Tucked between rapeseed fields and wooded hills in the Austrian countryside sits one of the remaining outposts of a frantic push by the German car industry into a pricey alternative to steel.
The goal was to make carbon fiber the core of future cars: combustion or electric. But it proved to be more of an engineering vanity project and highlights the shortcomings of a corporate culture that creates a bias for stability.
While Germany’s focus on steady improvement has worked well in the past, it’s ill-suited for a period of rapid change. And the risks have become evident as Europe’s largest economy struggles with trade conflicts and the value chain shifting away from traditional engineering. Third-quarter economic data today are expected to show that Germany fell into technical recession for the first time in six years.
Inside the SGL Carbon SE factory in Ort im Innkreis near the German border, two dozen workers in blue t-shirts shuttled between about 30 industrial robots on a recent fall day. The machines stacked, cut and glued carbon-fiber parts for rooftops and rear spoilers.
What they didn’t do was churn out entire auto frames by the masses, as envisioned by BMW AG and Volkswagen AG earlier this decade.
Ahead of the 2013 rollout of the BMW i3, which has a body based on the material, “the hype around carbon fiber was huge, ” said Herwig Fischer, who heads the plant located in what’s known as Austria’s Composite Valley. The i3 “has been a revolutionary project. Today, it’s more about an evolution.”
At the time, BMW teamed up with SGL to set up a plant in the United States to produce the sleek black fiber and vied with VW for control of the Wiesbaden-based company. Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG jumped on the bandwagon by setting up its own joint venture with a Japanese peer. The German giants were keen to secure access to the material that’s lighter and stronger than steel, but costly and cumbersome to work with.
iPhone on wheels
Shortly after the carbon-fiber craze started, Tesla Inc introduced the Model S, featuring a 265-mile range, wireless software updates and a 17-inch touchscreen display. In other words: While German auto engineers tinkered with a complex material that drivers couldn’t see or touch, the California upstart was inventing the iPhone on wheels.
Similar fizzled developments include BMW’s 2005 combustion-hydrogen car fueled by a liquid form of the gas that’s almost impossible to store safely in a vehicle. And then there was the original Mercedes A-Class in 1997.
The compact infamously rolled over during testing and featured an innovative but boxy design that turned off its target audience of younger customers.
While the stumbles have been relatively minor, the window for business-as-usual overengineering is closing.
Germany – only now developing a car-battery sector to power its shift to electric vehicles – has already started to lose its edge, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest report on global competitiveness.
The country dropped to rank seven worldwide from third last year, largely because it’s struggling to adopt new Internet and communication technologies, the report says.
The complex way decisions are made in corporate Germany has contributed to the slow pace of adaption. At the top of the pyramid are supervisory boards, which hire and fire top executives and sign off on major strategy decisions.
Employee representatives make up half the seats on the boards and tend to take a dim view of moves that could reduce jobs. They generally need to seek a compromise with the investor side. Those representatives are 60 years old on average, 93% male and many split their time between multiple oversight bodies, according to a recent study from consultancy EY.
The investor delegates were described as often being “ill-equipped, ” “relatively useless” and “all old guys” in a 2018 study from consultancy Alvarez & Marsal, which was based on interviews with 20 German executives.
Daimler’s effort to become more nimble is a case study in the complexity of German corporate decision making. In 2013, the automaker sought to untangle its conglomerate structure by making its commercial vehicle unit more independent, but internal dynamics shot down the plan at the time.
It took Daimler six years to finally succeed. And the company had to pay dearly to gain support just for creating legally separate units for cars, trucks and services: agreeing to invest 35 billion euros (US$39bil) in Germany and safeguard jobs through 2029.
There has been progress. Most big German companies are making an effort to add more diverse views.
Last year, Daimler recruited Marie Wieck, head of IBM Corp’s blockchain operations, to its supervisory board, and Volkswagen added communications executive Marianne Heiss to its group of overseers. This year, SAP SE appointed Germany’s first-ever female DAX chief executive officer.
Volkswagen’s diesel scandal also delivered a painful wake-up call to German automakers, which have since accelerated efforts to develop self-driving, electric cars. And it looks like there’s still time: Tesla’s development remains volatile, and other game-changing risks, such as ride-sharing services and robo-taxis, are still in the works.
BMW is now exiting its joint venture with SGL and its future iNEXT flagship won’t rely as heavily on carbon fiber as the i3. While the prospects for an entire car frame – with the exception of elite models like the Lamborghini Aventador – are a stretch, the push wasn’t totally in vain.
Many components benefit from the material’s low weight, durability and fire resistance, and it’s gradually becoming more economical.
SGL churns out parts faster than ever before. It’s developing battery cases for China’s NIO Inc and will start 10 new projects to produce automotive parts in 2020, from three new lines this year. It’s also expanding outside the car industry, and similar composite materials have become well established in plane making.
“It took about half a century for aluminum to make its way from the aviation industry into serial production in cars, ” said Andreas Woeginger, SGL’s head of technology for its composites division.
“Our industry is still young.” — Bloomberg