Testing times for powertrain development

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David Kelly, director at Drive System Design, argues that outsourced testing is much more than a commodity purchase when unfamiliar technology must be validated.

The automotive industry, across all sectors, has always been a highly competitive business but profitability, or even survival, is becoming increasingly challenging. In the powertrain area, three related factors are combining to create a perfect storm: overwhelming pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of all vehicle classes; the rapid switch to whole or partial electrification; and the arrival of new players throughout the supply chain.

As a result, new product designs, often using technology unfamiliar to manufacturers of traditional powertrains, must be brought to market with unprecedented urgency. Validation of these designs requires not only suitable test capability but the expertise to define appropriate test regimes then execute them efficiently.

With engineering budgets stretched thinly across multiple powertrain technologies, the most cost-effective solution for many companies is to outsource elements of the work to trusted partners. Routine outsourcing of testing to relieve in-house bottlenecks is nothing new, but a growing number of organizations are taking a more strategic approach by partnering with independent consultancies that can provide more than simply ‘testing as a commodity’.

Apart from resource bottlenecks, the established argument for outsourced powertrain consultancy is to benefit from wider experience. Launching a product laden with technology that is new to a particular organization often results in issues arising late in the program, when they are most costly to rectify. A reputable consultancy may well have prior experience from multiple projects using similar technology and be well aware of the likely pitfalls and how to overcome them.

In the case of electrified powertrains, a transmission supplier seeking to deliver an EDU (electric drive unit) must get to grips with the requirements and nuances of e-machines and power electronics. A motor supplier approaches the business from the opposite perspective and must gain expertise in transmission design. For the manufacturer of the vehicle, whether hybrid or all-electric, comes the challenge of integration. In the case of new entrants to the vehicle market, the situation is even more fraught with the risk of unforeseen interactions between the major system components.

Often systems that perform satisfactorily in isolation suffer from unacceptable interactions, such as NVH issues, when functioning together. This can frequently be predicted and avoided through effective use of design techniques, such as simulation, earlier in the program. With simulation an essential tool in vehicle design, the testing regime should be planned so as to thoroughly validate the simulation, as well as the product. This demands a detailed understanding of many factors, including the appropriate duty cycles for the application, and their influence on the design envelope.

In some cases there may be no appropriate ‘standard’ test, or even ‘off the shelf’ hardware on which to conduct it. The specialist input from an experienced consultancy can save time and money by identifying the most efficient route to deliver the appropriate tests. It can eliminate the excess cost of a product being over-specified to pass too arduous a test and, more importantly, it can prevent reliance on a misguided test program that fails to identify potential issues.

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