An Idra Giga Press is pictured at Tesla’s California factory.
TRAVAGLIATO, Italy — By replacing around 60 welded components with a single module, gigantic aluminum die casting machines made by companies including Tesla supplier Idra Group are helping automakers to simplify manufacturing and cut costs by up to 40 percent in some areas.
Tesla has pioneered the use of massive casting machines, also known as Giga Presses, to make large single pieces of vehicle underbodies, streamline production and reduce the work of even robots.
This has helped it become the most profitable battery electric-vehicle maker.
Critics say the process poses quality and flexibility risks, as a single flaw can compromise a whole module, and make fixing more difficult if something goes wrong. But with the industry struggling to preserve profit margins amid surging raw materials prices, automakers including Toyota, General Motors, Hyundai, Volvo Cars and Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio are turning to companies such as Idra for help.
The term Giga Press was coined by Idra CEO Riccardo Ferrario for the first order of an OL 5500 CS HPDC machine in May 2019, the Italian company said in a release announcing that the term had been added to online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
A Giga Press is a series of high-pressure aluminum die casting machines. Molten aluminum weighing more than 100 kg is injected into the cold-chamber casting mold with a velocity of 10 meters per second. The cycle time is about 120 seconds, resulting in 30 completed castings an hour. About 500 castings can be produced each day using three 8-hour shifts.
The maximum width of a casting is 2.2 meters. The castings are currently used for front and rear underbodies, but Idra is working to add castings of battery cases and central platforms that incorporate battery cases. Idra’s Gigi Press ranges in size from 19.7 x 7 x 6 meters to 22 x 8x 6.5 meters and have a clamping force ranging from 5,500 to 9,000 metric tons.
“The basic idea was to provide a technology that could simplify the car production process,” Idra general manager Riccardo Ferrario told Reuters in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Travagliato, northern Italy.
Battery packs currently make up 25 percent to 40 percent of the total cost of BEVs.
“You need to make the rest cost less,” Ferrario said.
Automakers using aluminum casting machines claim they can reduce investments needed to build chassis – a vehicle’s second most expensive component after the engine – by 40 percent, and the average cost of their parts by 30 percent, Ferrario said.
“It’s a way to eventually make BEVs something for all pockets,” he said.
Idra, which was taken over by Chinese group LK Industries in 2008, has been developing Giga Presses since 2016. Competitors of Idra and LK include Bühler Group in Europe, Ube and Shibaura Machine in Japan, as well as Yizumi and Haitian in China.
Metal and plastic die casting has been largely used in manufacturing, but its application to large aluminum underbodies in automaking is relatively new.
The global aluminum die casting market was worth almost $73 billion last year and is projected to top $126 billion by 2032, according to an AlixPartners analysis based on Apollo Reports data.
Aluminum is prized for its light weight and is also used for other car parts including engines. The average content of the metal in European produced cars rose 20 percent to 179 kilograms in the three years to 2019 and is expected to increase to almost 200 kilograms by 2025, a study commissioned by lobby group European Aluminum shows.
Idra’s newest and biggest gigapress – the 9,000 – is the size of a small house and produces a clamping force of over 9,000 tons.
The company, which made 100 million euros ($108 million) in revenues in 2021, does not disclose its customers. But after it posted a video of the first Giga Press 9,000 ready for shipping, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said it was for his company’s new Cybertruck.
Idra’s newest and biggest gigapress – the 9,000 – iwill be used to build Tesla’s Cybertruck.
Tesla already operates gigapresses in all its facilities, including in Grünheide, near Berlin, where it says it can produce a Model Y in 10 hours – about three times faster than electric cars built by competitors.
Ferrario said Idra had contracts with three automakers and as many ‘Tier 1’ parts makers. Hyundai is among them, sources familiar with the matter said.
Ralf Bechmann of manufacturing consultant EFESO said the benefits of die casting would push it “to be applied to an increasing number of new models of BEV vehicles, also by other manufacturers.”
Front and rear underbodies cast by Giga Presses are now combined with battery packs to form a three-piece chassis for BEVs.
“I bet 80 percent of automakers will use Giga Presses by 2035, at least for BEV cars based on new platforms,” Ferrario said. “But the real question is: will we need even bigger Giga Presses?”
Yet not all automakers are convinced, and EFESO’s Bechmann cautioned that large module die casting required product design to be “super solid.”
“Fixing design flaws is much easier with a body made up of several small parts rather than a single module,” he said.
After initially considering die casting for its upcoming Trinity model, Volkswagen Group has backtracked, while BMW has never expressed an interest.
Ferrario said the auto industry tended to be conservative and that no one liked upending established processes, but he rejected idea that die casting posed a risk to jobs at automakers, noting body-making was already highly automated.
“The real issue will be with businesses supplying those little parts replaced by our modules,” he said.
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