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Designing for end of life: the future make-up of vehicles

Caroline Guest
Caroline Guest

Caroline Guest, Technical Specialist in Sustainable Manufacturing at HSSMI provides us with her take on where she sees the future of the ELV industry.

For the last few decades, mass produced cars have remained relatively unchanged. There have been advances in reducing the emissions of both petrol and diesel powertrains, but the overall architecture has stayed consistent. Body construction techniques have improved, with more complex shapes capable of being stamped and the increase in use of aluminium panels. However, metal has continued to account for about 80% of a car’s weight, with 70% of the vehicle being steel.

A profitable industry has built up around recycling vehicles at the end of life, due to the value of the metals recovered from shredded vehicles. There are 1711 ATF currently registered in England alone undertaking depolluting, dismantling and recycling activities.

Recycling has a key role to play once a product has no more useful life, but it only recovers the raw materials, prior to this the goal is to extend the product’s life.

What does the future hold?

We are now seeing a paradigm shift in car design. The uptake of electric vehicles is increasing exponentially (26% growth in 2018 y.t.d. versus 2017) and they are entering the mainstream. Electric machines, thermal propulsion systems and lightweight vehicle and powertrain structures are amongst the technologies expected to be key up to 2040. The level of electronics is increasing to support connectivity, enhanced safety features and autonomous vehicles.

Alongside these technologies, the materials being used are changing. Cobalt, lithium and nickel are all key materials required for the current generation of lithium-ion EV batteries, driving a huge upswing in demand for these raw materials.

However, it is still uncertain what, if any, propulsion system or architecture will dominate, and new battery chemistries, fuel cell and motor designs are being continuously developed.

One example of the new car breed is the BMW i3, with a purpose-designed EV platform, CFRP life module, plastic exterior panels and an aluminium drive structure. More adhesive processes are used in place of mechanical fasteners, inhibiting easy disassembly. 

How will these changes impact the industry handling them at the end of life? 

Vehicles must be designed to allow economic material recovery through recycling as a minimum. We have a healthy industry in place in the UK around remanufacturing, repair and recycling with “traditional vehicles.” However, if we are not careful we are solving one problem with electrification, that of emissions levels and fossil fuel future resource uncertainty, but we will be creating another, a mountain of waste.

There are some key challenges that are being faced with the future makeup of vehicles. Resource scarcity and increasing prices of metals such as neodymium and cobalt are already having an influence. A guaranteed supply at competitive prices is key to support EV manufacture in the UK.

Extended producer responsibility legislation, particularly for batteries, means that currently the only option is to ship batteries to mainland Europe and pay for their recycling with costs up to £4/kg. The UK supply chain for handling these vehicles at the end of life is currently not there to support remanufacture and recycling, it needs to adapt to stay competitive. 

ATFs are already facing challenges as electric vehicles start reaching their end of life and arriving at these facilities. The high voltage batteries need to be removed as part of the depollution process but require additional care and training with regards to removal, handling and storage. The cost of sending the batteries for recycling must be factored into the operation. There is a lack of standardisation in battery design and vehicle integration, with a range of chemistries, assembly methods and manual disconnect locations. The associated lightweighting also has the potential to impact on margins, through a percentage reduction in easily recoverable metal content and the potential for increased costs for material separation. The 95% ELV target will still need to be met despite these challenges. 

Opportunities

By working out how to overcome these challenges during the design phase, they can be turned into opportunities. There is the chance to influence the design before these technologies mature and ensure that vehicles and their key assemblies are designed to aid disassembly and material separation. There are also potential new revenue streams for the UK, such as the recovery of high value materials like neodymium and cobalt, which can then go back into new product manufacture. 

There is currently no lithium-ion battery processing in the UK, designing to enable this and setting up the supply chain will capture this value. And before recycling, there are huge opportunities for remanufacturing and repurposing, both for reuse in automotive applications and for repurposing for others. However, it needs the industry as a whole to quickly get on board and get up to date with overcoming the challenges and making the most of the opportunities.

At HSSMI we’ve been collaborating in research with UK companies to both design for and improve recovery at the end of life. In the past we have looked the end of life of both fuel cells and electric motors, including how to enable remanufacturing of these high value components. As part of an Advanced Propulsion Centre project led by London EV Company, I am assessing the end of life options for key vehicle components and assemblies and how design can be influenced to improve these, the goal being to extract maximum value and minimise resource use.  We are also leading a 3-year Innovate UK Faraday Battery Challenge project called VALUABLE, which focuses on exploiting the value of end of life batteries; bringing together and developing significant reuse, remanufacturing and recycling supply chains for second life automotive lithium-ion batteries. With a range of academic and industrial partners we are looking to both influence design and implement solutions.

With increased production and consumption of these new technologies, comes new challenges around how to optimally recover the components and the materials within them at the end of life. With the growing stringency of the ELV Directive, coupled with pressures from resource scarcity and the potential commercial opportunities that can be exploited from it, it is critical that automotive manufacturers and the producers of these components understand how to do this from the very start. 

However, to succeed, collaboration is needed across the supply chain so better design is not seen as an unnecessary cost by OEMs, and in the case of batteries, the value of them can be realised at the end of their first life rather than being a cost burden.

About the author:

Caroline is a Technical Specialist in Sustainable Manufacturing at HSSMI, a manufacturing innovation company. With an MSc in the topic, her focus is on developing remanufacturing and more efficient use of resources, particularly in the field of automotive electrification. She previously worked at Ford Motor Company, a career spanning over 20 years, working across all areas of the business, focussed mainly on vehicle launches throughout the world.

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