Environmentally friendly refrigerant requires investment
September 2012 – As Dürr Somac celebrates 20 years of filling equipment, Managing Director Bernd Preißler explains the challenges the automotive industry is faced considering the refrigerant R1234yf and how Somac is planning to attend the emerging markets even more proactively.
20 years of filling equipment at Somac – Mr. Preißler, how have you experienced the development of this corporate sector?
I have been with the company since 1992 and have been actively involved in all stages of development over the last 20 years. It was an exciting time, all employees were highly motivated, we were ready for a change – anyway, it was a matter of the company’s survival. Following the privatization in 1991, the company changed its name to KOMEG Somac GmbH. It was the basis for a new start. In 1992, we took over the responsibility for filling equipment, which was the foundation of our business, the idea, the opportunity! None of us knew much about filling systems as a product. But despite entering a sector we were not familiar with and a market environment with well-established competition, we began to seek out international business within the automotive industry.
Every third vehicle around the world is now filled by your systems. You are the world market leader. What are the strengths of Somac’s products?
It is not only about the strengths of our products, but also about the philosophy we pursue as a company: technology – competence – globality. For example, we keep long-term technology partnerships with our customers. Together, we have produced many developments and products with unique selling points, which have become worldwide standards. These products have enabled us to achieve high market penetration. Added to that is the experience and commitment of our employees, who represent us competently in their day-to-day business with customers all over the world.
Our experience in the Chinese market deserves particular reference. It was as early as 1993 that we signed the first agreement with Jinbei in Shenyang. China is a country in which word-of-mouth advertising plays an important role. With 36 percent of our business volume generated there, China is our largest single market.
The automotive industry now requires special filling systems following the introduction of the environmentally friendly refrigerant R1234yf, which has been compulsory for use in air-conditioning systems of all new passenger car models and light commercial vehicles in the European Union (EU) since 2011. What does this mean for Somac at present and in future?
Due to its formula, R1234yf is a highly explosive and flammable refrigerant. It requires equipment that provides a safe production environment for workers and carmakers through the use of special, explosion-proof components and gas detection technology. The refrigerant cannot be used in the existing systems installed in the automotive industry. For this reason, all assembly lines must be equipped with this new technology. As this applies to all passenger and light commercial vehicles type-approved since 2011 and to all vehicles that will be registered within the EU from 2017 onwards, the new technology is required for European plants as well as those that export vehicles into the EU. OEMs, i.e. automotive manufacturers, will therefore be gradually investing in this new technology over the next few years, and we have the products they need.
Dürr has a strong presence in the emerging markets. How do you see the prospects for Somac and, in particular, for its filling equipment?
We have developed products especially for this market, which we manufacture with the help of our employees at Schenck Shanghai Machinery. The products manufactured in Shanghai range from very basic systems for CKD (Completely Knocked Down) and SKD (Semi Knocked Down) production, via slower assembly lines up to fast line filling stations, for customers mostly based in China. The “CompStart” filling system produced in China has already been delivered to Thailand, Russia and India, but also to customers in Italy, Belgium and Germany. We will further expand our production site in Shanghai in order to continue to successfully serve the emerging markets.
What is the general trend in filling equipment?
It is highly dependent on vehicle development. With the emergence of new actuation technologies for electric and hybrid vehicles, filling tasks were at risk of becoming redundant. However, thanks to the mixed production of vehicles with conventional actuation technologies and electric/hybrid vehicles, the current trend is rather different. For example, there are additional cooling circuits for cooling electric units that have to be filled, and hybrid vehicles will continue to be supplied with all existing fluids. Purely electrically powered vehicles require systems that are independent of the electrical supply, such as a hydraulic brake system, in order to ensure vehicle safety. Filling equipment will also be required for refrigerants, cooling circuits and windshield fluids for such vehicles.
Do filling systems also have to meet country-specific requirements and continually rising quality standards?
Definitely. There is a trend toward increasing equipment automation aimed at facilitating the work of staff and reducing production times. But there are also growing demands for filling quality, linking together production systems and flexibility in production in terms of cycle times and mixed vehicle production, all of which are placing new demands on technology.
Are there more fillings tasks in other industries?
Yes, in the area of non-automotive and commercial vehicles, where most of the work is currently carried out manually. We already have some references in the truck industry, from fork-lift truck producers or gearbox manufacturers. Here, development is still in its initial stage and I can see further potential for the expansion of our activities.