EVs Are Starting to Kill the Auto Parts Industry

An automotive valve company asset auction shows how fast obsolescence moves in the EV era.

Internal combustion engine valves, or poppet valves, are conceptually simple components that have been around for well over a century. Producing them in mass quantities is done with special-purpose machine tools and interesting friction welding technology to meet stem with head. But as internal combustion engine demand is predicted to flatline and eventually fall with the advance of electric vehicles, the science and art of valve making would appear to be on the way out. A recent auction of the assets of a technical valve making facility in Germany chose special-purpose machine tools for valve making on the block at prices a tiny fraction of what they cost new. Valves may be on the way out, but more significantly, the concept of highly specialized, single-purpose machine tools for mass production is on the block as well.

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Episode Transcript:

This interesting little part will be familiar to thousands you out there that tinker with internal combustion engines: it’s a valve.  


Every modern automotive engine has either two or four of these per cylinder, a matched set of intake and exhaust valves. But they are more accurately called poppet valves, because they open and close the combustion chambers through cylindrical linear guides logically called valve guides, under the action of a rotating cam. 

They been a basic part of automotive engineering technology since the start of the automobile, and they are an interesting manufacturing challenge both because of the way they are manufactured, and to the tolerances they must be manufactured.

These things are not made in a single piece, but are made in two parts, with the head and stem friction welded together, and tolerances to which this thing has to be made are difficult to achieve. To seal properly in the combustion chamber valve seat, concentricity has to be nearly perfect, and both the valve face and the stem must be grounded to form a gas-tight seal at the face and allow just enough clearance in the valve guide to allow free movement with minimal oil passage past the stem.

So why am I bringing this up? The recent closure of a European automotive valve making factory recently came to my attention by way of the asset auction of the production machinery. The production equipment is specific to valve making: head stem straightening machines, length cutters, friction welders, bead turning lathes, under head and seat grinders, groove grinders and automatic hard facing systems. 

Equipment that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars new has starting bids of under $500 per unit. And frankly, I don’t expect a great deal of interest in that equipment, either.

With the rapid rise in electric vehicle sales, plus government incentives worldwide, we are rapidly moving into a global automotive industry where annual auto sales growth is assured, but internal combustion engine volumes will be flat to falling. I don’t expect to see expansion of engine parts production to increase global capacity from this point forward, unless that production capacity is designed around multipurpose multi-axis machining centres with advanced robotics.

That auto parts factory of the future will likely be making a wide variety of products, for both internal combustion and electric vehicles, and probably for other industries as well. 

Parts production has come full circle: it began a century ago with general-purpose machine tools which were simply tasked with making auto parts. Then, high-volume mass production demanded a new generation of custom machines designed to do single tasks and do them at high speed and low cost. 

That’s the kind of equipment being auctioned in Germany now, machines which can only be used for making automotive valves. This kind of mass production equipment is a one-trick pony, and in the case of machines like these, I expect that a significant proportion of them will not find a new home and may end up as scrap metal. And unlike the vehicles that these machines built parts for, no one is going to create a museum dedicated to automotive valve making technology, so the equipment and the decades of human expertise that evolved to make valves, is going to disappear. 

That’s progress, and it’s coming faster than we think.  

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for ENGINEERING.com. Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.