The new Linamar facility in Welland, Ont., will be the first North American auto parts supplier-owned and operated gigacasting plant
The city of Welland, a sleepy canal town near Niagara Falls, Ont., might seem an unlikely spot for electric vehicle innovation. Yet a factory now being built by Canadian auto parts maker Linamar will change that perception.
When it opens in 2025, the plant will make Welland ground zero within the North American auto parts sector for a technology that’s all the rage in EV manufacturing: gigacasting.
Pioneered by Tesla, gigacasting uses massive high-pressure die-cast aluminum alloy molding machines to make entire EV chassis segments in one quick step.
Gigacasts make EVs lighter, a huge benefit given the additional weight from batteries that EVs carry compared to combustion cars. They’re also cheaper, faster and less labour intensive to produce than the steel-component chassis they replace.
Until recently, die-cast aluminum molds were only used to make smaller components. Now the industry is racing to follow Tesla’s lead.
First in North America
Linamar’s facility, when it opens, will be the first gigacasting plant owned and operated by a North American parts maker.
“There are 15 or 20 Chinese suppliers that are looking to put in this type of capacity in China. But from a European and North American standpoint, we’re the first one,” says Mark Stoddart, Linamar’s chief technology officer and executive vice-president of marketing and sales, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
Stoddart says Linamar’s initial plans call for the installation of three 6,100-tonne gigacast molding machines. (Tonnage is the clamping pressure the machines exert to hold molds together; bigger molds need higher pressure.) The plant’s production is earmarked for one specific customer, which at this point Linamar is unable to name.
“They’re concerned about the secrecy of the vehicle, because it hasn’t been announced,” Stoddart says.
Linamar sees OEM interest, opportunity in gigacasting
To date, it’s been OEMs making most of the headlines around gigacasting. Volkswagen, Subaru and Volvo, for example, have all announced interest. This summer, Toyota unveiled its gigacast development facilities in Japan. And, most recently, at the Japan Mobility Show in October in Tokyo, Lexus showed off a prototype gigacast chassis component in its booth.
In an interview at the show, Lexus International president Takashi Watanabe told Electric Autonomy (through an interpreter), “you will see the gigacasting technology” in the next generation Lexus EVs it plans to launch starting in 2026.
For Linamar, the move to gigacasting reflects a larger strategic shift to migrate its business to EVs from legacy combustion engine vehicles.
It began developing high-pressure die-casting expertise, on medium-size presses (2,500 to 4,400 tonnes), several years ago through a joint venture facility in North Carolina.
More recently, as other OEMs started looking to replicate Tesla’s success with gigacasting, Linamar saw an opportunity. Given that many OEMs don’t have in-house casting expertise, Stoddart says the company decided to “stretch” its existing capabilities and get into larger presses. “And then we went after a specific customer.”
Organizationally, Linamar also bought out its joint venture partner in the North Carolina plant and earlier this year folded it and the Welland plant into a new division called the Linamar Structures Group.
To further target other EV-related revenue, it has also created an e-axles group and recently acquired a battery enclosures business.
“When you add up those three key things, we’ve got a division now at Linamar doing almost one and a half billion dollars of either pure EV work or else it’s propulsion agnostic,” says Kevin Hallahan, Linamar’s vice-president of marketing and investor relations.
Gigacasting press installed in France
One of the most intriguing parts of Linamar’s gigacasting story is how it is proceeding on two fronts. While plant construction continues in Welland, the company is already in production with a 6,100-tonne gigacasting machine (from its European manufacturer) installed at a casting and R&D centre in France.
Members of the Linamar team are now onsite doing training and tool development. The plant recently poured its first gigacasts. Stoddart says Linamar will supply the first gigacasts from France to its OEM customer here so it can move forward with its vehicle development program before going into full production after the Welland plant comes online in 2025.
By that point, Linamar also hopes to have secured a second OEM customer in Europe. It would serve them with the existing gigacasting machine in France.
“We’re talking to OEMs that are relatively close to our facility, which is just north of Paris,” says Stoddart.
Shipping logistics are a factor in determining the range of potential OEM customers in both markets.
“The castings are huge,” says Stoddart. “I think we get like 72 or 75 castings on a tractor trailer. So, if you start running automotive volumes in the hundreds of thousands … these things don’t ship well. We need to be close by.”
Given how many vehicle assembly plants are on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border not too far from Welland, that detail doesn’t point to any one particular OEM as Linamar’s unnamed gigacasting customer.
However, as Linamar’s new plant will have the capacity to add additional gigacasting machines for additional customers in future, it does mean that for any OEM in the region looking to outsource a gigacasting contract, right now all roads lead to Welland.
For the portions of this story reported from the Japan Mobility Show, the writer was a guest of Toyota. Content was not subject to approval.