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Performance materials

No need to take your eyes off the road

CoverForm®: Improved safety in road traffic thanks to intuitive touchpads. 

While the left hand holds a mobile phone, the right hand tries to tune in a new radio station—this kind of behavior can have fatal consequences. While driving, your entire attention should be devoted to surrounding traffic and to controlling your own car. Modern multimedia systems in the car can help in this regard—they make it possible to conveniently have telephone conversations, to navigate, or to get traffic news. The multimedia system found in many current Mercedes model lines can be operated without the driver even having to take their eyes off the road—a development in which technology and know-how from the field of specialty chemicals play a major role.

In-car multimedia is a popular feature and is part of everyday life, but it can lead to dangerous distractions. A particularly critical moment is when the driver diverts their gaze from the road and surrounding traffic to operate the multimedia monitor or control unit. One of the trends emerging at the moment is therefore head-up displays, a monitor in the driver's field of vision, which work in a similar way to devices used by jet pilots, where the driver is given information directly via a projection on the front windscreen. Another trend is multimedia control units where drivers can simply use their hands to get a response without having to look. Automotive supplier Continental has developed a control unit for Daimler with unique features: a threedimensional touch pad. CoverForm® technology from Evonik and KraussMaffei was the basis that helped make the idea a reality.

Functional and comfortable devices 

The innovative touchpad is integrated into the center console of several of Mercedes' current model lines. It allows drivers to operate the multimedia system in the intuitive way smartphone users are accustomed to—by swiping, zooming and scrolling. Drivers can also write letters on the touch-sensitive surface using their fingers, to enter a satnav destination, for example.

The touchpad then confirms the action via a vibration that the driver can feel, similar to a button, which means the driver can use the system without having to look at it and can therefore concentrate on the road at the same time. The touchpad, which is slightly curved, can even be used as a comfortable palm rest, as it is able to detect whether contact with the surface was purely coincidence or whether it was intentional. With features like these, the multimedia system is setting new benchmarks in the automotive industry.

More durable than smartphone surfaces

Touchpad surfaces naturally come under more strain the more they come into contact with human hands, and it is therefore important that the faceplate of the touchpad is even tougher than that of a smartphone—that is, extremely scratch and chemical resistant. "Rings and freshly-moisturized hands pose a very big problem for many materials," says Sven Schröbel, a CoverForm® expert from Evonik Industries, who knows the issue inside out. The specialty chemicals company found a solution for this challenge: the hardest type of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), such as PLEXIGLAS® (in the Americas: ACRYLITE®) marketed by Evonik, combined with an additional coating for particularly demanding requirements.

But it's about more than just the material: Traditionally, the method used for manufacturing three-dimensional components with special features like these was injection molding followed by a separate lacquer coating—a process involving 14 steps in total. A complex method. It would have been possible to lower requirements and change design, but this was no real option. That was until specialty chemicals company Evonik and machine manufacturer KraussMaffei came up with a new, special technology as the answer to such demanding applications: CoverForm®. It enables injection molding and the application of a scratch-resistant coating to be combined in a single, fully-integrated process, making the manufacture considerably quicker and more cost-effective—and the component suitable for mass production.

Innovation as team success

The new touchpad is the result of several years of joint development work between Evonik, KraussMaffei, Continental and Daimler. For a number of months now, Continental has been using the CoverForm® process to manufacture the top layer of the touchpad and also assembles the entire device. More than a million faceplates are expected to be produced there as early as 2016. Behind this success lies a great deal of ambition and a team with a range of competencies.

But it's not just the automotive industry where CoverForm® has found its purpose—it is also used as an alternative to produce anti-glare, scratch-resistant plastic coverings for consumer electronics, household devices, home technology and watch covers. Evonik is marketing CoverForm® together with KraussMaffei; after all, the process technology is a trendsetter here, not just the materials technology. And Sven Schröbel sees clear advantages in this collaboration: "It means customers only have to deal with practically one source—from the conceptual phase through to the start of series production, with expert support from two strong partners."