• Materials

Towards the harmonisation of lightweight policies at EU level

Originally published in the JEC Composites Magazine.

The sustainability impact of lightweight technologies and composites is worth studying, as well as the role played by the European Lightweight Cluster Alliance (ELCA) in coordinating efforts at the EU level. How can an EU-wide policy on lightweight technologies contribute to the EU’s overarching goals, including the European Green Deal, the European Critical Raw Materials Act and the announced European “Advanced materials for industrial leadership” initiative?

Once strangers, industries are now waltzing together with lightweight solutions, which include fibre-reinforced composites, light metal alloys and ceramic-matrix composites. This pursuit of lightweight solutions brings cross-sectoral partnerships together, fostering the sharing of expertise and enriching the market ecosystem.

In a world grappling with climate change, lightweighting presents tangible solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across product life cycles. Simultaneously, it enhances the performance and efficiency of moving components while streamlining manufacturing processes.

Once strangers, industries are now waltzing together with lightweight solutions, which include fibre-reinforced composites, light metal alloys and ceramic-matrix composites. This pursuit of lightweight solutions brings cross-sectoral partnerships together, fostering the sharing of expertise and enriching the market ecosystem.

Effective lightweighting begins at the design phase. Industry investments in improving lightweighting technologies should be supported by an enabling political framework. Lightweight-related policies are of paramount importance in pushing the market towards environmental sustainability. These policies are the unrecognised heroes shaping a future where stakeholders don’t meet regulatory benchmarks but redefine them.

Multiplying lightweight policies

Despite the existing EU-wide policies and regulations surrounding lightweighting, such as the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan, and the Critical Raw Materials Acts, there remains a need to harmonise these efforts throughout Europe. The EU Green Deal is a €1 trillion high-voltage policy mix, leading Europe towards climate neutrality by 2050 . Lightweight technologies play a key role in several aspects of the Green Deal, particularly in climate action and sustainable industry. Often referred to as the “Fit for 55” package, this ambitious undertaking aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels. Regarding sustainable industry, the adopted Circular Economy Action Plan aims to increase product lifetimes. Advanced materials, including lightweight materials, are fundamental for a transition to a green digital economy for the EU’s economic security. The Materials 2030 Manifesto underlined the need to have “a systemic approach to develop the next-generation solution-oriented advanced materials, which will offer faster, scalable, and efficient responses and thus turn them into opportunities for Europe’s society, economy, and environment today and in the future.” 

Michael Luke, head of Fraunhofer Research Field Lightweight Construction, representing the Lightweight Alliance of 14 Institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, emphasises the importance of lightweight policies for sustainability goals, assessing the energy and resource requirements of manufacturing processes, and addressing broader social and economic impacts. Lightweighting is about keeping the same performance with high resource efficiency while optimising the product design.

Lightweighting put to the forefront

Projects such as AMULET (H2020) and SALIENT (HE) are making significant strides in advancing lightweight technologies.

These policies and regulations have fostered progress on lightweighting. Javier Sanfelix, policy officer at the DG Research and Innovation Unit E3 for Industrial Transformation of the European Commission, provides some insights. 

Firstly, climate change and sustainability stand as the dominant supermodels gracing the European runway. Secondly, lightweight technologies have proven to effectively reduce carbon emissions while decreasing natural resource consumption in terms of materials and energy. He also highlighted the European Commission’s support, emphasising calls under Horizon Europe (HE) Cluster 4 (on digital, industry and space) addressing lightweight technologies and materials.

Pedro Mimoso, business development director at the Pólo de Inovação em Engenharia de Polímeros, echoed this emphasis and highlighted the work of the ELCA, which is at the forefront of addressing and amplifying these high-level issues in lightweighting and composites. The ELCA fosters knowledge exchange, promoting research and development, and collaborative platforms. In early 2022, the ELCA and the European Lightweight Association (ELA) agreed to collaborate in promoting European lightweighting efforts, with the ELCA focusing on innovation and ELA on business-related activities.

In May 2023, Composites United (CU), a network in the composites field, organised an event in Brussels with the support of ELCA and ELA (“No European Green Deal without Lightweight Technology”), aiming to highlight the role of lightweight technologies in the Green Deal goals.

This was followed by a conference of the high-level policy network European Light weighting Network (ELN), where these organisations discussed best practices and how lightweight technology and innovation have an important role in achieving sustainable growth. In recent months, the ELCA, ELA and the ELN have been in discussions regarding the potential benefits of establishing an EU-wide policy agenda for lightweighting technologies on industry and society in general, representing the harmonising efforts of pivotal actors on the EU stage.

Furthermore, projects such as AMULET (H2020) and SALIENT (HE) are making significant strides in advancing lightweight technologies. AMULET aims to foster the usage and penetration of lightweight solutions by SMEs across different sectors, including automotive, aerospace, energy and construction. As for SALIENT, it focuses on automotive safety by developing lightweight solutions that are not only circular but can also adapt to different crash scenarios.

Hot lightweighting in the automotive sector

Transport applications, including the automotive sector, have been pioneers in lightweighting alongside clean energy applications such as batteries and wind turbines. Regulations such as (EC) 715/2007 aimed to cut down CO2 emissions as early as 2007, with subsequent amendments for new light commercial vehicles, for example, regulation (EU) No. 510/2011. Europe’s CO2 emission standards have been tuned to the rhythm of vehicle mass: the heavier the fleet, the more generous the CO2 emission allowance. In their current form, European regulations have led to a reduction of around 74% to 100% in potential CO2 emissions due to lightweighting initiatives.

Germany, a major player in lightweight technologies and Europe’s largest vehicle manufacturer, contributes 20% to the EU’s polymer composite production (220,000 tons). As a result, the German government has agreed on a “lightweighting strategy that balances three cornerstones of sustainability – the environment, a resilient economy and social aspects”, as noted by Werner Loscheider, head of division in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action of Germany (BMWK). Other EU members perhaps do not have a specific lightweight policy agenda or strategy but make an impact through taxing and subsidising the automotive industry (see map below).

Voices from the frontrunners

Looking through the eyes of the EU, it is clear that lightweighting and composites are here to stay and that they will continue to captivate. Javier Sanfelix also highlighted that the EU is working on a coordinated action on “Advanced Materials for industrial leadership”. This action has been announced as a key priority for 2024 by President Von der Leyen, in her letter of intent sent to the President of the European Parliament and the Presidency of the Council after the State of the Union speech in September.

In the very near future, discussions will revolve around how best to leverage the priorities developed by the ELCA and its members. Firstly, this action plan outlines the research imperatives that will guide Europe’s ascent in the material domain. Secondly, it engages all member states and European stakeholders to work together towards common strategic goals. The lightweight stakeholder community clearly fits the work of this coordinated plan through shared objectives.

Javier Sanfelix added that the key technological challenges identified for advanced materials, including circularity, the enhanced utilisation of digital tools as a game changer, and accelerated upscaling and deployment, are also highly relevant for lightweight technologies.

Therefore, a European strategy on advanced materials envisaged for early next year could be a catalyst for further expansion of lightweight technologies applications in areas such as the following:

Acceleration of time to market with digitalisation

An enticing materials data marketplace quickens research actions and increases synergies across actors and sectors in the innovative materials value chain. Pedro Mimoso agrees with this point and reinforces the significance of lightweight design in Europe’s green initiatives. As CU stated: “No European Green Deal without lightweight design technology”, Pedro Mimoso expressed: “No lightweight design without digitalisation.”

Innovation uptake

Test beds (a form of technology infrastructure) and prototypes come alive in a passionate embrace of academia, research, and industry, fuelled by technology’s allure and market desires.

Circularity boosting

Resilient material value chains are emerging across sectors as Europe chases its recycled materials target. New design and assessment methods for “safe and sustainable by design” innovative materials production will boost the confidence of industry and end-users. “With the forthcoming advanced materials for industrial leadership” initiative, Europe should set the stage to bring relevant materials initiatives together and join forces towards European technological leadership, mentioned Javier Sanfelix. He also noted that there are common goals with the ELN: “Together, they are working to build a European materials ecosystem that will boost the successful achievement of the objective and strengthen the industrial landscape in Europe.”

A dazzling trio

Public authorities can formulate and implement policies that support lightweight technologies. “The political support for lightweighting varies around the globe”, admits Werner Loscheider. Sweden, Austria and Germany have identified lightweight technologies as a game changer and have developed national industrial agendas including funding programmes and strategic initiatives. Cecilia Ramberg, director of the Swedish Strategic Innovation Programme (LIGHTer/RISE), highlights that this trio adopts a more holistic approach in connecting lightweight technologies and materials to the societal challenge of sustainable growth. “We strive to explain the importance of resource efficiency and thus connect the different lightweight technologies in relation to the transition to sustainability. It is essential to describe the role of lightweighting for a more sustainable society to speed up the transition”, she said. Michael Luke underlines the strong engineering traditions of Sweden, Austria and Germany in automotive, aerospace, and transportation industries that have already experienced the benefits of lightweight solutions and will also help energy conversion, maritime applications and mechanical industries. “Their political representatives (not only their governments) declare a strong commitment to sustainability and reducing environmental impact”, he said. Werner Loscheider also commented that the combination of political awareness, industrial demand, and societal understanding of lightweighting’s strategic importance forms a solid foundation for unlocking its full potential.

According to Michael Luke, Cecilia Ramberg and Werner Loscheider, many nations are undertaking strategic actions to address lightweighting. Werner Loscheider concludes: “Nevertheless, better political recognition of the importance of lightweighting as a transformative technology is needed. Demand from industry and a broad community with a passion for innovation are helpful.”

Roadmap for harmonisation

International collaboration is essential to support and implement effective policy models. To achieve this, it is important to bring stakeholders from various sectors, including government, research funding and industry, together with research in joint research projects, knowledge-sharing platforms; or with funding programmes that support cross-border initiatives, to share best practices, exchange ideas, and develop new solutions for the sake of the people.

– Michael Luke, Head of Fraunhofer Research Field Lightweight Construction

Javier Sanfelix highlights that a coordination of research and innovation activities between the EU and member states should be key in strategically steering investments in infrastructures, skills and research activities. It could even create a European materials ecosystem empowering researchers and industry to deliver the materials of the future. As an EU-centric initiative, “the long-term goals of the ELN are developing a European lightweight strategy, starting from a research and development agenda and establishing transnational research funding”, confirms Werner Loscheider. To this note, Cecilia Ramberg adds: “Our goal is to use lightweighting to speed up the Green Deal.” 

Influential voices in the industry could certainly steer the direction of such policymaking. By facilitating cross-sectoral knowledge exchange, new value chains can be created, leading to new regulations. Pedro Mimoso agrees on knowledge sharing and believes in the unity of the EU and a harmonised policy approach across member nations: “A reduction of 1 kg in weight may appear negligible. However, when one factors in the associated energy savings, material conservation, and reduction in CO2 emissions, the benefits become profoundly evident to implement a cohesive policy on lightweight design. Therefore, the EU must function as a whole.”

Michael Luke adds: “International collaboration is essential to support and implement effective policy models. To achieve this, it is important to bring stakeholders from various sectors, including government, research funding and industry, together with research in joint research projects, knowledge-sharing platforms; or with funding programmes that support cross-border initiatives, to share best practices, exchange ideas, and develop new solutions for the sake of the people.”

Cecilia Ramberg emphasised three steps for establishing a lightweighting policy that can contribute to the EU’s overarching sustainability

Objectives: better explaining how lightweight solutions enable a more resource-efficient society; establishing a cross-material cooperation (e.g. aluminium and composites have different pros and cons) between different lightweight technologies; for instance, Sweden has ten years of cooperation experience in cross-material competencies, and the results are inspiring; promoting collaboration between networks (e.g. ELN, ELCA, ELA and CU).

Along with these steps, ELCA and its members are working to establish a harmonised policy framework in Europe. “We are facing big challenges: communicating the lightweighting philosophy, raising awareness of its concepts and bringing together many different perspectives and overcoming biases –lightweighting is way more than just composites”, concludes Werner Loscheider.

Closing note

Lightweighting offers a tangible solution to the climate change challenge and Europe is at the forefront of achieving this challenge. An EU-wide policy will allow all EU-member states to follow the same standards, simplifying compliance and easily tradable manufacturing goods, while enhancing European products to stand out in the global marketplace. Societal influence is as crucial as administrative leaders in crafting such an EU-wide lightweighting policy. Awareness and active engagement of civil society have a direct impact on the EU’s policy agenda, urging it to adapt in a more agile and responsive way. The rise of digitalisation (e.g. digital platforms, online petitions) further amplifies the voice of common citizens. The path forward is clear: unified action for a lighter, more efficient future.

Learn more about the work of the  Materials team

Our advanced materials team works with leading OEMs and research organisations to craft initiatives like the European Lightweight Cluster Alliance to accelerate advanced material uptake across Europe. Get in touch with us to learn more.

Ricardo del Valle Zermeño
Innovation Consultant
Materials
Indira Altynbekova
Innovation Consultant
Materials