Suhner Machining had been working in the automotive industry for decades in drilling, cutting, or tooling and workholding. However, the roads are changing as more electric vehicles (EVs) are being introduced and Suhner knew they had to change, too. That meant incorporating more lightweight materials since light-weighting is essential for EV components.
Suhner’s Managing Director Lee Coleman knew they had to adjust to get over a few early hurdles in working with the lightweight materials.
“One of the biggest challenges is clamping and workholding,” Coleman says. “Because the materials are so light, workholding becomes very critical, because if you're trying to hold a lot of parts, stability is still the main thing when you're trying to drill. If the material is not stable, then it jumps around, you may drill holes, but your hole quality goes down.”
Quality is obviously important when producing automotive parts or else the cars won’t drive, but what makes a quality electric vehicle part is different from a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE). Instead of dealing with chips from cast iron, metal, or aluminum used in ICE products, materials used in EV such as sheet metal, sheet molded compound (SMC), fiberglass, magnesium, composites, or plastics produce dust. Suhner began using sealed units when producing EV parts.
“We’re taking our standard unit and closing some of the openings, changing different types of bearings, to make the unit run better,” Coleman says. “The two main materials involved in EVs are either the plastics, the sheet metal compound, and fiberglass or magnesium. Magnesium is a beast on its own that must be drilled and since magnesium is so flammable, you've got to drill it almost underwater. So now our sealed units become even more sealed because of flood coolant, extreme micro fog, or different things to prevent chips from catching fire.”
Suhner works with their customers to ensure the holes are cleanly drilled so the EV parts don’t wear down and fail once they’re in the car. Whether it includes a metal insert, a riveted piece, or a through-bolt, Suhner uses different techniques to drill the hole because if they’re not to the customer’s specifications, Coleman knows what can happen.
“The SMC is subject to micro-cracks, if you have excessive vibration, you start to get cracks in the fiberglass,” says Coleman. “And that is why a lot (of customers) don't use standard drills. With a normal fluted drill, it may try to pull the material. That's why a lot of them go with a burr style bit because it just chews up the material and turns it into dust and therefore, there's nothing trying to grab it. You think about a sheet molded compound, this comes in rolls and the fibers are cross-hatched. If a normal drill grabs one of those fibers, it’ll rip it and pull it out, causing a crack.”
Suhner was able to deliver cleanly drilled holes to their customers using and modifying existing machines and parts instead of having to incorporate new ones for the EV market. However, that doesn’t mean Suhner isn’t looking into potential new technology that could help them further excel in eMobility in the future.
“We see the biggest market growing in material removal in robotics. A lot of people went to CNCs for machining because they can be programmed. And you can do 20 different parts with the same machine,” Coleman says. “Well, now it's the same thing with robots. Now a robot can be programmed to do several different things. We're developing end effector tools, so a robot could pick up a tool and drill, sand, polish, or grind. With one robot, you can do several operations.”
As the eMobility market continues to pick up, Suhner will continue modifying their tools and equipment and develop new ones because Coleman knows they’ve always been able to adapt to customers’ needs.
“Things are manufactured much the same way. They're just doing different materials. The way our units are constructed, we handle the dust and the environment much better, and we have in the past 20 years,” says Coleman. “It's kind of natural for us to not shy away from dusty or rough environments. That’s helped us gain, and a lot of our competitors were getting out for that reason.”