Frankfurt Auto ShowFRANKFURT – Fuel-saving water and oil pumps, low-friction bearings and lighter pistons will not change the world – but it is a start.

While elaborate and expensive hybrid technologies captured much of the attention at the recent Frankfurt auto show, Kolbenschmidt Pierburg AG, the automotive unit of German automotive and defense supplier Rheinmetall AG, touts products that offer small but significant improvements in fuel economy and emissions.

Electric water pump improves fuel economy and emissions by as much as 3%.

They definitely are not the sexiest products on the floor, but in an era when emissions regulations are toughening and fuel prices are soaring globally, anything that even marginally increases efficiency is causing auto makers to pay attention.

Some of Kolbenschmidt Pierburg’s businesses are struggling because of declining volumes and market share at key customers, admits CEO Gerd Kleinert, but he is optimistic about growth in North America, where the company has won a lot of new business.(See related story: Kolbenschmidt Pierburg Upbeat After Restructuring)

North American sales for the powertrain component supplier have grown steadily over the past four years, from $240 million (€199 million) in 2001 to $314 million (€261 million) in 2004. Total global sales were €1.9 billion ($2.3 billion) last year, up about 3% from 2003.

Last April Kleinert announced in Detroit the supplier’s Pierburg, Inc. unit, which produces water and oil pumps, electronic throttle controls, secondary air pumps and exhaust control valves, booked more than $50 million of new business in 2004, the highest rate of new business since the U.S. unit was established nine years ago.

Kolbenschmidt Pierburg may be best-known as a piston producer. It is No.2 in the world after Mahle Group – in fact, its booth at the car show resembled two giant pistons.

At a press conference at the Frankfurt show, company officials revealed several new piston designs that are lighter weight and achieve faster cooling and oil throughput, but Kleinert says he also sees promise in new products such as an electrically driven coolant pump, first introduced two years ago. (See related story: Supplier Debuts Electric Coolant Pump)

The pump now is in production on BMW AG’s 3L DOHC I-6 used in its new 3-Series and also will be adopted on all BMW’s 4-cyl. gasoline engines beginning in mid-2006.

No other contracts have been signed, but Kolbenschmidt Pierburg is in discussions with several other high-end auto makers, both in Europe and the U.S., company sources say.

While Pierburg’s electrically driven coolant pump costs more than a conventional belt-driven unit, it offers fuel economy and emissions benefits as well as some comfort and convenience features, Kleinert says.

By powering the pump with its own electric motor, parasitic power losses are eliminated, and fuel economy and emissions are improved by as much as 3%, the company says.

And, because the pump runs independently of the engine, it also can be switched off for faster warm-ups in winter and left on to cool a hot engine in the summer even after the engine is turned off.

Quicker warm-ups in winter also mean the engine oil heats up faster, reducing friction and improving overall engine life, the company says. Because the pump does not have to be positioned so a drive pulley can be attached to the engine’s crankshaft, there also are numerous underhood packaging advantages.

The electrically driven pump is the first step in what BMW and other auto makers refer to as the “beltless engine,” where all devices such as the cooling fan, water pump and air conditioning compressor are powered independently, significantly improving fuel economy, emissions and underhood packaging – albeit at a price.

Pierburg officials also tout a variable-vane oil pump, which reduces parasitic power losses compared with conventional oil pumps.

While it, too, costs more than a conventional oil pump and delivers very modest fuel efficiency gains, company officials say fuel prices over $6 (€5) per gallon in Europe and $3 (€2.5) per gallon in the U.S. are sparking serious interest. “Americans are waking up,” says one official.

The variable-vane oil pump is expected to see its first production application in the 2009 model year, although officials will not give details.

High-performance engine bearings are expected to be a key growth area for the company as well. Its Plain Bearings Div. offers a host of new high-performance and low-friction composite bearings that are designed to withstand the rigors of increasingly power-dense engines and new families of highly corrosive engine oils.

Several new lines of lead-free bearings are key to the supplier’s product lineup. Lead has been a standard component in conventional steels used for bearings because it adds lubricity, but new environmental legislation coming in Europe in 2008 requires it be eliminated.

In mid-September, Kolbenschmidt Pierburg also announced a new U.S. joint venture between its KS Bearings Inc. subsidiary based in Fountain Inn, SC, and Miba Bearings US LLC, based in McConnelsville, OH.

The new company, ABM Advanced Bearing Materials LLC, based in Greensburg, IN, will produce all the raw materials from cast lead and lead-free bronze and brass hybrids for processing at Miba and KS locations in the U.S., Germany and Austria.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com