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Dr. Gerd Kleinert, CEO of Kolbenschmidt Pierburg.

Talking About Technology Under the Hood

A Q&A with Dr. Gerd Kleinert, CEO of Kolbenschmidt Pierburg, a Germany-based tier-one supplier with operations from Shanghai to South Carolina.

As chairman and chief strategist for Kolbenschmidt Pierburg, an automotive supplier based in Germany with extensive global operations, Dr. Gerd Kleinert is dealing with plenty of issues. There are the concerns related to the number of vehicles being manufactured in the various economies. There are the issues related to being a competitive supplier. There are the issues related to being a technology leader. As the company, which is a part of the larger Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall AG, Kolbenschmidt Pierburg has operations that provide:

Engine blocks (KS Aluminium Technologies)
Pistons (Kolbenschmidt)
Bearings (KS Gleitlager)
Intake manifolds, throttle bodies, emissions controls, pumps (Pierburg)
Spare parts (Motor service)
To get a sense of how he sees the various markets and where he sees the technologies he’s involved with heading, we asked Dr. Kleinert for his observations on various subjects.

AD&P: As a piston supplier to vehicle manufacturers around the world, do you find that there are differences among the various companies? Are they looking for different things?

Kleinert: Indeed, there are differences between what our piston customers in the United States, in Europe, and in Asia expect from us. In the USA, we are the biggest manufacturer of aluminum pistons and hence, we are geared to addressing large-volume requirements. One instance of this is the Ford I4 engine. The situation in Europe and Asia, on the other hand, differ due to the large proportion of diesels among newly registered autos, a share that for 2003 is as high as 43.7%, and in certain countries such as Spain, France, Belgium, or Austria has exceeded 60% and in some cases the 70% level. One peculiarity of the Asian market is the need to produce locally, which is why we operate two highly efficient production plants there—a Mazda piston manufacturing plant we recently took over and our joint venture in Shanghai which, by the way, has existed since 1997.

AD&P: What trends have you seen in piston technology of late?

Kleinert: There are, as I see it, two main factors at present: On the one hand, pistons need to address the insistence by the OEMs on weight savings and, hence, research efforts in this direction are already very intense. On the other hand, we have the on-going trend within Europe toward highly charged diesels, with even higher ignition pressures and accordingly elevated combustion chamber temperatures coming in the future. This trend we are anticipating with variable cross-section coolant passages and fiber-reinforced materials. As to the future, new types of parent material will certainly deliver the required stress resistance.

AD&P: Although the U.S. light vehicle market is comparatively diesel free, what if the U.S. was to start utilizing diesels in a bigger way? Would your company be in a position to supply pistons for those engines?

Kleinert: Yes. As mentioned, Europe is a very fast-growing diesel market, and before very long, diesels will have outpaced gasoline autos among new registrations. Through our R&D efforts we have helped shape this trend, and hence, we are well poised and prepared. Once the general parameters regarding diesel quality and buyer behavior are given, it will prove possible to transpose European diesel engine technology onto the American market. Here, too, just as in Europe, the chief argument, I feel, will not be the fuel savings alone, but the enhanced driving pleasure available from modern diesel engine-powered vehicles. A torque of 750 Nm at low engine RPM, as in the case of VW’s V10 diesel, is not that easily attainable with a conventional gasoline engine. More and more of today’s young, sporting motorists are opting for a diesel car. In the U.S., we are currently manufacturing ultramodern diesel pistons with coolant passages for a 5.9-liter, six-cylinder diesel engine used in a popular heavy-duty pickup truck.

AD&P: Outside of people directly involved with them, engine bearings don’t get too much attention. What’s happening in that area?

Kleinert: It’s true that these products tend to have a low-profile existence. After all, who’s likely to take an engine apart to examine what kind of bearings the crankshaft is rotating in? Here, again, current demands are being driven by the diesel engine since in view of the prevailing loads, the challenges are enormous. We are addressing these demands with such developments as sputtered deposits for engine bearings that give them very high wear resistance combined with ideal friction properties. We are also taking into account rising ecological requirements, specifically when it comes to scrapping used engines, through the lead-free coating materials for bearings that are already in the market. This is certainly a trend that will accelerate.

AD&P: What’s occurring in the area of manifolds and throttle bodies?

Kleinert: These are products that are handled by our Pierburg division, which has a production facility in South Carolina. Alongside the increasingly important issue of emission abatement, this division is concerned with the movement toward lighter and smaller components, such as motorized throttle valve systems. This is a segment in which we intend to step up our activities, and for this purpose, for instance, an extended application engineering facility is being setup in Greenville.

AD&P: How are you developing new products for the market?

Kleinert: As a long-standing first-tier systems supplier to the OEMs, we are, of course, often closely involved in the development of new systems and components. One trend we observe in this respect is demand-responsive controls as in the case of water and oil pumps. I also perceive a movement toward package solutions as illustrated by the integrated intake manifold module we recently presented. This assembly integrates, among other items, the throttle body, exhaust gas recirculation, and a cooling unit, all of which makes the OEM’s assembly job a lot easier. This is a trend that will race ahead over the years to come.