In professional cases, only a few millimeters decide whether or not a race car driver is airborne or continues speeding down the track. The car’s shape makes all the difference between qualification or disqualification, and just a few grams can mean victory or defeat – for Markus Reitbauer, CEO of Hintsteiner Group, this is his company’s bread and butter.
A brisk wind begins to blow. Off on the horizon, heat waves rise from the asphalt. The air flickers. Although still a good distance away, the beastly hum of the engine becomes louder as a shimmering silhouette deftly makes its way along the curvy stretch. The eight cylinders echo throughout the landscape. A current of air flows over the car body and seems to pull the vehicle along the course as if it were attached to a string – much like a racing scene you’d see in a movie.
Auto racing – Formula One and other classes – pushes the limits of not only what is possible, but also what is allowed. An error down to microns can easily cause a car to be disqualified for a race or lead to a severe crash and this is where ZEISS comes into place. The Hintsteiner Group, located in the picturesque town of Mürzhofen in southeastern Austria, exclusively manufactures carbon car parts, and Markus Reitbauer, who heads the company, deals with extreme limits every day.
Carbon is light as a feather, but rigid as steel
As a material, the structure of carbon – or, technically, of a ‘carbon fiber-epoxy resin compound’ – means a significant reduction in weight: it has the same rigidity as a material like steel, but is 80% lighter. Carbon comes in the form of carbon fiber mats. These mats are quite malleable, making them ideal for building spoilers and aerodynamically effective side panels on cars as well as airplane components. All these parts feature complicated designs enabled by this extremely flexible material. Moreover, carbon components are more stable than metal ones and do not rust. “Carbon remains robust, even when subjected to significant strain. If the air current bends part of the car, then the vehicle can literally take flight if it hits a bump,” explains Reitbauer.
The company has been developing and offering tailor-made solutions for plastics technology since 1981. While it used to focus more sharply on local heavy industry, today the Hintsteiner Group is more interested in high-tech materials. Reitbauer sees the company’s ability to quickly produce car parts with great precision as the secret to their success: “Slight jostling is commonplace, causing a vehicle part to break – that’s when we receive an urgent order for a replacement.”
Quick reactions are needed
When a customer calls, the company has to react quickly. The model’s CAD (computer aided design) is sent over, and the designer gets to work. Depending on the requirements for a structural element like a car part, up to 60 layers of pre–impregnated carbon fiber mats are layered on top of each other. Then, the component is placed in a pressure chamber oven, also called an autoclave. After six or seven hours in temperatures ranging from 120° to 180° Celsius, everything fuses together to form a part with a dull black surface we would recognize as carbon. “A lot is demanded of carbon parts in racing. The aerodynamics of a racecar create up to 3.5 g of lateral cornering force depending on the speed of the vehicle, i.e. the vehicle is subjected to three times its own weight on the track,” explains Reitbauer.
Exact results thanks to ZEISS technology and measurement technique
“Sometimes cars are disqualified because of non-regulation parts for the chassis or engine. Errors of just a few millimeters are enough for a rejection,” says Reitbauer. The 3D measurement report serves as the seal of quality for the customer, guaranteeing the correct component dimensions. Hintsteiner can make this promise that its parts meet the correct requirements because of their ZEISS measurement systems.
Every part is measured in 3D with LED light beams – all on site and quite quickly. “We used to outsource the measurements, but doing them in-house has saved us a lot of time. Previously, this would take up to five, or even seven days. That was a major factor for us when deciding to invest in the ZEISS COMET,” explains Reitbauer.
Lightweight but still heavy-duty
Reitbauer is convinced that carbon will become standard in large batch production and find its way into thousands of vehicles: “There are already industrial production lines where the entire chassis is made of carbon. And on electric cars, this material helps reduce the overall weight of the vehicle, increasing its range.” Will large-scale manufacturing pose a risk to Reitbauer’s company in the future? Not at all. “Carbon is becoming increasingly accepted and helps us enormously with these types of projects,” says Reitbauer. The company recently opened a site in China to meet the rapidly rising demand from this new market. But even on the other side of the world, the recipe for success is no different: it’s all about quality and speed. Just like on the racetrack.