Disrupting Automobile Design - Sustainable Integrated Electronics for Vehicle Front Shields

Author : Neil Armstrong, Group Managing Director, In2tec

04 November 2023

Figure 1: A vehicle shield now serves various purposes
Figure 1: A vehicle shield now serves various purposes

The grilles at the front of vehicles are evolving. Traditionally, they have served as means for providing ventilation, enabling internal combustion engines (ICEs) to get the cooling air they need.

Over the decades, they have also become a key way for automotive manufacturers to differentiate themselves from one another - proving invaluable when it comes to establishing brand identity. The models produced by many of the leading manufacturers are instantly recognisable to the general public through the style and shape of their grilles (Rolls Royce, BMW, Alfa Romeo, VW, Bentley and Jaguar being obvious exemplars of this).

With the need to tackle climate change and air pollution driving an ongoing shift away from ICE vehicles, and widespread electrification throughout the automotive business worldwide, the role of the grille is set to change. Rather than it being responsible venting, it is now necessary to find other potential uses.

Even the naming of the part is changing. Now, the description generally being used is ‘shield,’ acknowledging the alteration in both opportunity and use. The clear movement in the industry is to house sensors, electronics and lighting systems in vehicle shields. Thereby providing alternative packaging, effective positioning and aesthetic differentiators in a way that was not previously viable.

According to Market Research Future, the front shield market is rapidly maturing. It is already valued at over $15 billion per year, and is experiencing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 7%. The integration of electronics is only going to increase its value in the years ahead.

By way of examples, Mercedes is installing advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) sensors into the front universally familiar three-pointed star emblem. Likewise, Hyundai is incorporating LED illumination in the ‘lighting grilles’ of its vehicles. The Polestar 3, an emerging electric-powered SUV from the Volvo Group, will feature a ‘smart surface’ front shield design that homogenously integrates radar and camera functionality alongside a heating system.

Integration challenges
Packaging printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) means that the current solutions have to connect multiple circuit boards together via wire harnessing infrastructure. Such cabling needs to be individually sealed to protect it against the elements encountered at the front of a vehicle (rain, snow, road dust, etc.). Doing so takes up space (which is in limited supply), as well as adding to the vehicle’s overall weight (which will impact on the distance it can travel before needing a recharge). It also requires the mechanical inclusion of individual modules throughout the shield. 

All this makes the system complex and to some extent unwieldy from a production perspective. In addition, it increases the risk of reliability issues occurring, with a considerable number of interconnects and units to seal. ADAS sensors require an unimpeded view. The sensing hardware must therefore be as close to the front of the shield as possible - which directly conflicts with injection moulding production methods. 

The sustainability aspect
As well as the move to electric vehicles to curb carbon emissions, there are also concerns throughout the automotive industry about the e-waste being generated, and the need for increased circularity at the end-of-life of vehicles. Motivation for this will come from both government legislative measures and customer expectations. However, increasing integration of electronics in vehicles is at odds with the lack of scalable sustainable PCBA solutions. The commercially unviable recycling of boards and assemblies means a sizeable portion of these are essentially shredded and subsequently buried. This goes completely against the automotive industry’s is overriding goal of becoming more sustainable.

What are the solutions? 
Today, the conventional ‘go-to’ method is a very predictable mix of discrete electronic units and sensors that are connected using a wiring harness. All these components are produced separately, shipped individually to the OEM, then installed on dedicated mechanical mounting systems. The interconnect system is a standard harness with connectors per individual or group of electronics, heaters, or sensors. Packaging presents a major issue, plus the time and costs involved are significant.

There is a growing trend in the industry towards in-mould electronics (IME) as a way of overcoming the problems outlined. Essentially, the technology injection moulds a 3-dimensional shape around a printed electronic foil - embedding the conductors and in some circumstances electronic components into the unit. The aim is to produce a single part that reduces the total component count in a highly protected environment. 

Figure 2: The circularity in electronics
Figure 2: The circularity in electronics

There are marked gains to be made here. Lifecycle assessments (LCAs) show a demonstrable reduction in transport costs of individual items and materials, as well as a lowering of the energy needed to produce a full shield. 

At first, this seems to be the panacea needed for integrated shield design. However, the technology does not lend itself effectively to the integration of multiple electronic components, as they are subjected to elevated temperatures and pressures during the moulding process. 

More significant is the lack of end-of-life recyclability with this approach. As the unit becomes a thermo-set synergy of parts, it is rendered nearly useless from a second-life perspective. The level of recyclability is even less than with the current technology of separate fibreglass resin-printed circuit boards, wiring and connectors. In some LCA calculations, the offset is significant towards the apparent lower part count and reduced logistics in production, but the inability to reuse at the end-of-life or recycle in an effective way is not taken into account particularly well. So, as the industry moves from LCA comparators to full circularity assessments, this will be an acute shortcoming for IME and its equivalents.

Fully-recyclable integrated electronics

In2tec Ltd believes it has the answers to the current difficulties that the automotive and other industry sectors face in implementing integrated electronic systems that will feed the circular economy. The company’s patented ReUSE® technology provides the foundations for fully-recyclable integrated electronics front shields that can be installed into next generation vehicle models. This technology delivers ’unzippable’ bonded conductive traces, printed sensors, plus electronic and mechanical components onto a sustainable substrate, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), bioplastics, nano-polymers, etc.

The flexible circuit board can be formed and laminated by applying ReUSE® bonding materials to a pre-vac formed or injection moulded one-piece front shield. The rear of that shield moulding incorporates cavities in which components of a sub-assembly can be housed - fully protecting the constituent electronic components and sensors, whilst critically allowing full end-of-life disassembly and recyclability. The harness is also created using an additive process to the substrate, resulting in a seamless and fully integrated interconnection system that minimises connector component requirements.

In2tec’s on-mould sustainable electronics (OMSE™) solution provides all the benefits of conventional IME, whilst also offering the ability to completely disassemble the unit into the different constituent parts at its end-of-life. The ‘unzipping process’, delivered at extremely low levels of energy expenditure, just relies on use of hot water. This also ensures the electronic components remain unstressed during separation. 

As an ever greater quantity of electronics content gets integrated into contemporary vehicle designs, the more that the impact of end-of-life recyclability needs to be considered. Society is generating masses of e-waste, with 58 million tonnes of electronics components and boards being shredded and buried each year. The way that recycling electronics is done right now is simply inadequate. We need solutions that offer full circularity, to reuse parts at the end-of-life as the basis for other purposes. Preservation of the world’s finite resources and the protecting of our environment are both paramount.

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