Arturo González Pérez, COPO Group R&D Director: “Reducing the use of fossil chemical compounds moves us towards the search for advanced sustainable materials”
Sustainability and competitiveness go hand in hand, especially in the new business ecosystem in which the environment is the common denominator while the lever that drives innovation. COPO Group, one of the largest manufacturers of automobile components in the world with headquarters in Galicia, has always made a strong commitment to R&D in the search for new raw materials – obtained from waste – that improve and evolve characteristics of the products they sell to the main manufacturers. We speak with its R&D Director, Arturo González Pérez.
Since its origins half a century ago, COPO Group has consolidated throughout the Iberian Peninsula and expanded to Europe and America. How has the car and seat manufacturing market changed over the years?
COPO Group is a Galician capital business holding company that has been operating since the late 1960s. Currently, it is made up of 13 companies with a presence in Spain (Mos, Porriño and Zaragoza), Portugal (San João da Madeira, Santo Tirso) , Brazil (Curitiba), Czech Republic (Pilsen), Mexico (Guanajuato) and Cuba. We started using foamed flexible polyurethane (PUR) as a product of origin and we have been diversifying in technologies and products to enhance our positioning in the automotive and household components sector (mattresses and pillows) that, today, represent 90 and 10% of our business, respectively.
In these 50 years of history, we have also accompanied the evolution of our main clients and witnessed the first line of the changes in the market of automobile components, highlighting four generic aspects. The first, the constant elimination of volatiles inside the passenger compartment, followed by weight reduction, active and passive safety and increased functionalities adapted to product customization. With regard to seats, the evolution is mainly due to the search for notable improvements in comfort combined with lower thicknesses and weight.
Do markets in Spain, Germany or Mexico have the same demands?
Car market is global and also its technical requirements. It is very common to find manufacturing units of European automobile construction companies spread throughout South America and North America, Asia and Africa, but managed at a technical level from the European headquarters. The same goes for Japanese, American or Korean brands. This also forces component suppliers to be global. Therefore, COPO Group settled in Brazil, Mexico or the Czech Republic and formed technical alliances with some competitors located in Africa.
In this sense, one of our pending handicaps is the unification of standards and test methods to determine the value of identical functionality. The attempts to standardize methodologies of characterization of the materials that form the interior components have been multiple, but with very little success.
Entering innovation, CIEN NOVACELL project is investigating the incorporation of micro and nanocellulose in textiles and polyurethane foams. What results do you expect?
NOVACELL is an R&D project that we frame within our sustainable product strategy based on the potential incorporation of additives of non-fossil origin to PUR formulations and to the finishing processes of our textile coatings. Reducing the use of chemical compounds derived from petroleum in our processes moves us to the search for alternative additives.
Specifically, the results of this project are focused, on the one hand, towards the improvement of the acoustic absorption properties of flexible polyurethane foams with special application in the acoustic components of electric vehicles. This is because the absence of engine noise powers other sound sources not perceived in explosion vehicles. On the other hand, in obtaining textile coatings that reinforce color fastness, elasticity and antimicrobial activity.
In the next phase of the investigation, other characteristics will be evaluated to detect potential improvements not foreseen at the beginning.
It is not your first research in advanced sustainable materials. With CETIM they have already worked in the use of lignin as a substitute for isocyanate in the manufacture of PU foams for car seats. Which have been the results?
COPO Group has always made a strong commitment to R&D. Already in 1987 we founded our first R&D department that has been growing in resources and activities until becoming an autonomous company within the holding company in May 2000 as the Technology Centre of COPO Group and with more than 60 employees.
In this research work, the links established with other specialized technological and knowledge centres such as CETIM are of remarkable importance. Thanks to these collaborations, different R&D projects are carried out that seek to respond to technological needs.
In this sense, within the framework of LIGNOSPREAD, the technological package for the use of lignin and APTES was worked as potential alternatives to the use of isocyanates in polyurethane manufacturing processes. We knew that we were in a very early stage of research (TRL <3), so the goal was not to reach a very advanced stage if we did not develop the potential of this alternative.
Precisely, the positive part of the first results has been to improve the state of the art to continue advancing and achieve industrializable products.
They are also conducting safety research on fireproof materials with the CIEN FENIX project, or recycling PU foams with REPUR. What added value does the incorporation of advanced and sustainable materials contribute to your production?
The sustainability of our business is a fundamental pillar in our competitive strategy and for this we are facing projects aimed at recycling and reusing our polymers. An example was REPUR, developed to incorporate polyols from recycled polyurethane into our polyurethane formulations through glycolysis of the flexible polyurethane foam remains.
In previous projects, the glycosylation techniques of PUR residues had already been developed, and similar results have been obtained with REPUR that have strengthened the knowledge about the PUR recycling process. The recycled polyol obtained has not been applied in our production process due to the strong deterioration that it exerts on the comfort properties, however it could be used in the production of foams for acoustic application and thermal insulation.
For its part, FENIX responds to the need to diversify the polyurethane market in COPO Group. The seats of mass transports, such as those of airplanes and trains, present a requirement of fireproofing and emission of fumes that make necessary the incorporation of additives capable of preventing the burning of the polymer by thermal excitation. These anti-combustion improvements could be applicable to other types of products based on alveolar polymers.
In general, what has the collaboration with CETIM supposed in projects such as REPUR or LIGNOSPREAD?
The technical collaboration with CETIM has allowed us contacts with companies outside the automotive sector, but that complement our know-how, offering us the possibility to collaborate with companies in the forestry sector, civil construction, fine chemicals or construction in general.
In addition, CETIM covers a chemical profile that we do not find in works with other technological centers and that has allowed us to face this type of projects.
Industry sector is immersed in a change of model, in the transition from the linear economy to the circular economy, for two reasons: the growing concern for the environment and the scarcity of natural resources. What is the strategy of the COPO Group to contribute to sustainable development?
The main production processes of COPO Group use chemical additives from petroleum. This dependence on finite fossil resources promotes development lines focused on the search for sustainable solutions through strategies of recyclability and reuse of by-products, the use of bio-origin materials, the eco-efficiency of our processes and the protection of the environment. In COPO Group we have always opted for sustainability as a lever that promotes the competitiveness of our business units.
In addition to the strict requirements of the automotive sector, in Copo we are pioneers in the implementation of environmentally friendly solutions that minimize water and energy consumption.
This strong commitment to sustainable development we want to continue doing from Galicia. In fact, we are the only large company of vehicle component manufacturers whose decision-making power and R&D activity is carried out from the community for all the holding companies.
Does this mean turning Galicia into a reference and putting ourselves on the map of innovation?
In COPO Group and, specifically from our Technology Centre, we carry out product developments for different automobile brands, in addition to carrying out R&D projects focused on product and process innovation. In this global market we can say that Galicia is on the map of innovation in automotive components.
At the R&D level, what challenges do they have to continue improving products and services?
We work on several developments aimed at increasing comfort under the so-called “cookie effect” and get a more aerodynamic car. Specifically, we have focused our efforts on improving postural comfort in seats with formulations that maximize vibratory damping and achieve a homogeneous distribution of support pressures.
Other lines are aimed at increasing thermal comfort, developing alveolar polymer formulations that enhance acoustic absorption benefits, as well as implanting coatings that reinforce cabin hygiene.
We have also focused on the reduction of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and on the use of more sustainable processes since aromatic emissions inside the car are one of the first claims worldwide.
In the field of ICT, we carry out the digitalization and optimization of processes through “machine learning”.
What features will the interior equipment of the car of the future have?
The trends we handle point to a strong customization for high-end models, in addition to other general features that take more or less importance depending on the type of vehicle. In the case of electric vehicles, it will be necessary to strengthen thermal and acoustic comfort, while in the category of freelancers, they will focus on aspects related to entertainment and relaxation.
In general, the connectivity of the devices between the user and the vehicle should be enhanced, the total weight reduced and the aerodynamics improved to minimize CO2 emissions.
Grupo COPO, based in Mos (Pontevedra) and factories in 6 countries on 2 continents, has a workforce of almost 1,500 workers and a consolidated turnover of € 220M. Thanks to its international presence, it manufactures components for approximately 350,000 vehicles per year, mostly seats (both PU foam and associated textile and tooling).Its production ranges from seats and accessories, fabrics, carpets and trim, soundproofing and acoustic and thermal absorbers, EPP parts (personal protective equipment), foam to tools and processes.