Technology drives mobility
It’s a small world now thanks to information technology and data transfer, thanks to planes, trains and cars.
Companies like REHAU are working to make sure the beauty of mobility won’t morph into a nightmare.
Everything’s in flux, in perpetual motion; the world has become a giant anthill. People, goods and information are moved back and forth across the globe, crisscrossing continually without a break. Mobility is truly the signature feature of the 21st century. Matthias Horx, German trend researcher and futurist, calls it "meta-mobility". "Mobility has to be considered in terms beyond the simple physical transition between points A and B. It’s now more about spiritual, emotional, mental, communicative and social mobility."
At the dawn of human history, "mobility" meant just that: physical locomotion from point A to B – on foot. The early 19th century brought us post coaches and these increased our travel speed up to 10 kilometres an hour making the stretch from Hanover to Bielefeld possible in about a day.
One hundred years later, the steam locomotive approached at 60 kilometres per hour, getting us from Hanover to Zurich in a day. After the Second World War, intercontinental travel reached foreign continents and today – in a day – we can casually circle halfway around the circumference of the globe on a jet. Unlimited mobility, nowadays, prevails above and below the clouds.
In the meantime however, traffic congestion clogs the skyways and even worse takes place on the ground especially where the most mobile vehicles are concentrated – in urban centres. "The city as the meeting place for individuals and their collective endeavours," states Gianni D’Amato, Professor of Migration and Citizenship Studies at University of Neuenburg, "was always dependent on the mobility of the citizens." Today, every second resident of the world lives in an urban environment. Experts forecast that by 2030, that’ll increase to 61 percent and by 2050 a full 70 percent is expected. "If current identifiable trends continue we’ll be facing spectacular urban mobility infrastructure crises and exhorbitant costs," claims the 2011 study "The Future of Urban Mobility" published by US consulting firm Arthur D. Little. There’s good reason for concern: in 2050, researchers forecast, every American will be experiencing per year an average of about 100 hours of lateness due to traffic. That’s three times as much as in 1990. The same year, of the world’s global biological resources, 17.3 percent will be spent on urban mobility. That’s five times more than in 1990. According to researchers, the annual investment for urban mobility will quadruple to 829 billion euro by 2050. "At the same time," states the Arthur D. Little study, "the costs and expenditures for energy and raw materials will sky rocket."
Escalating costs, history teaches, trigger behavioural changes. Changes for individuals. For industry. In the car in a traffic jam in the city, these are bitter pills no one wants to take. The path forward has been well-primed with healthy groundwork for the impending behavioural shifts. City planners and mobility experts already predict where the path will lead. Transportation, infrastructure, traffic management and even navigation itself will be based on entirely new laws and business models. Hybrid cars, micro-mobiles, electronic pricing and parking systems, intelligent traffic management systems linking automatic monorail systems to public transportation; these all promise to transform the cityscape of tomorrow. "Urban mobility reform presents a monumental challenge in politics, society and for the individuals using transportation," claim the authors of the Arthur D. Little study.
While certain technologies – hybrid concepts, for instance – are already enjoying wider acceptance, researchers foresee "radical new technologies that will revolutionise urban mobility in the future". Solar-powered buses and trains for public transportation, constructed to utilise already existing city rail tracks, for example.
Technology is the driver of tomorrow’s urban mobility and this much is clear: those companies commanding technical expertise and power over innovation will be those who profit the most. The future begins today in industry, whether automobile or railroad manufacturing. The trend indicates that everyone manufacturing automotive components is producing smaller, lighter components with highly advanced technology. "Introduce intelligent lightweight design," says Porsche Director Matthias Müller in an interview. "Commit to lightweight engineering combined with downsized motors," argues Europe’s oldest industry journal, Switzerland’s "Automobil Revue" in reference to the challenges facing the passenger car of the future. Smaller and lighter means less fuel consumption and reduced CO2 emissions as well as increased technical enterprise in manufacturing and operations.
In terms of operating range, the next form of transportation after the car is the airplane. Accordingly, the challenges facing aviation industry subcontractors and suppliers to aircraft manufacturers correspond to those in the auto industry; because of limited resources components must be made smaller and lighter and the demands on the properties of the materials used increase. Here again, technical expertise and the ability to master innovation are decisive competitive advantages. Where the modern plane lifts off and lands is exactly where mobility thrives most: in the world’s airports. For scientists, intercontinental airports are being dubbed "cyber-mobility centres" – traffic hubs through which everything mobility signifies, is channelled.
In these so-called hubs wide-body jets crisscross to connect distant continents, transforming our wide world into a village. Descending on airports in waves; they depart again in endless tides of new waves. People, thousands per day, millions per year, gush from the big metal birds with their baggage. Transferring passengers cross-hatch the same spaces to catch another plane aimed in the direction of some other airport someplace else in the world. These oceans of people, mountains of luggage and rivers of goods and merchandise bisect the airports continually, demanding to be managed and directed. "A socio-technological structure that has been evolved into a sort of mass mobility machine, a space of transitions," is how English sociologist John Urry defines the airport.
On the ground in airport infrastucture and building technology, energy efficiency, use of replaceable energy and modern, state-of-the-art water management must be mastered to make mobility function professionally with maximal energy-saving. To a certain degree, after cars and planes, the increasing mobility demands centered around airports count as a third driver of growth and innovation for technology-driven companies focused on the technology of mobility.
At REHAU, entrepreneurial activities are taking place in all these spheres so significant to future mobility. In automotive engineering, our existing product range already spans single component assembly elements to highly complex systems, with a broad range of bumpers. In aircraft construction, the firm’s acquired know-how in the manufacture of high-performance composites is the fruit of our labours in the development of profiles, hoses, mouldings and sealing systems. REHAU systems expertise in airport construction has been called upon in 50 international reference projects in 14 countries worldwide; from Frankfurt airport, to Beijing Capital International Airport, to Moscow-Vnukovo airport. We’ve delivered environmentally friendly system solutions for energy consumption in terminal buildings and maintenance facilities, low-temperature systems in administrative buildings, window elements using optimal heat and noise insulation, asphalt reinforcement for heavily-used runways and finally, sprinkler systems as fire prevention in highly frequented areas in airports.
According to Niklas Braun, CEO of REHAU Automotive, the company’s diverse roles in providing technical expertise in automotive industry engineering influence private vehicle usage as well. "Design standards, aerodynamics and vehicle safety are highest priorities in the production of our thermoplastic polymer bumper and fender systems," says Braun. Individualisation of forms and the variety in models being produced ever-faster in ever-shorter time frames, demands that the externally visable shaping components of a car adhere to extremely strict design standards. In terms of aerodynamics it’s not only a matter of energy efficiency and CO2 reduction, but also of affecting external airflow in specific traffic conditions. Bumpers must be designed and constructed so that upon any impact (with a cyclist for instance), maximal energy will be absorped to cushion and redirect the impact.
For REHAU, internally, the theme of mobilty takes on a whole new relevance in the context of production. "In REHAU’s Feuchtwangen plant, the bumper production process is now becoming fully automated," says Niklas Braun. "It functions with a conveyer system similar to the complex baggage handling systems behind the scenes at every airport." The facility should be up and running in January 2013.
Undisturbed mobility, goes the maxim, is a question of behind-the-scenes technical mastery of which the ever-mobile 21st century citizen, is oblivious. Or as Niklas Braun puts it: "We’re making sure perpetual mobility remains a blessing, not a nightmare."