Clusters make their way into the off-highway cabin

  • 12-Sep-2011 09:05 EDT
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Maxima Technologies' 5GC Instrument Cluster featurtes five gauges—including a tachometer, speedometer, hourmeter, and odometer—and eight warning lights.

As difficult economic conditions continue to take their toll on the off-highway industry, many OEMs are trying to satisfy various complex customer demands and simultaneously minimize engineering and manufacturing costs. For example, adding new elements to a vehicle’s display can improve the human/machine interface but the corresponding costs for parts, wiring, and custom engineering can quickly escalate, eroding profits.

However, when considering the vehicle’s electronic components, transitioning from individual gauges to a standardized instrument cluster helps reduce engineering and installation costs without compromising appearance or performance.

Instrument clusters are available in a variety of configurations for a wide range of vehicles, from compact construction equipment and tractors to equipment used in severe-duty applications. Simple instrument clusters contain just three gauges and a few LCD indicators; more advanced clusters include up to five gauges and 27, high-resolution LCD indicators, while incorporating control systems usually found elsewhere in the cabin of the vehicle. The clusters can be configured to work with electronic or mechanical controlled engines.

Maxima Technologies believes that instrument clusters have three main benefits for OEMs: reduced overall cost, lower installation cost, and a sleek appearance. A single instrument cluster that incorporates multiple gauges is less expensive than each individual gauge—and still provides the same functions. In addition, an integrated cluster, which is one cohesive package that can be snapped into a dashboard, is significantly easier and less expensive to install than wiring and connecting each individual gauge to the vehicle’s electronics system.

Because of their rugged nature and reliability, instrument clusters are suitable for a variety of demanding applications, including tractors, wheel loaders, back hoes, compaction equipment, and construction vehicles with low horsepower. For example, instrument clusters used in agricultural equipment could include gauges and lights to indicate that the vehicle is driving in a straight line to keep the rows straight while tilling and performing other farming tasks, as well as detect the weight in the back of a tractor that’s bailing hay.

The most recent trends in instrument cluster design include the use of more LCD screens integrated into the cluster. The cost of LCD screens is coming down, and OEMs are taking advantage of these savings and incorporating more display functionality in the clusters. In addition, suppliers are using color in an innovative way to make the direct warning lights more easily visible, especially if they are in the path of direct sunlight. Other features, including anti-fog and anti-glare capabilities, help protect the cluster from the inclement weather in vehicles with open cabins and boosts the vehicle’s productivity.

Clusters also are becoming more technologically advanced. Besides incorporating displays, some suppliers are also adding control functionality into the cluster, eliminating separate machine controllers, wiring, and other parts in the cab of the vehicle, increasing space for the operator and further improving HMI.

The advanced software behind all the instrumentation in the cluster has also evolved along with the corresponding hardware. The software in advanced instrument clusters relies on a real-time operating system with a 32-bit microprocessor. The systems that power the gauges and LCDs in the cluster have become more modular and capable of integrating various I/O functions and important peripherals such as GPS and global systems for mobile communications (or integrated cell phone technology).

The instrument cluster has become increasingly important in vehicle design, especially in regard to HMI. The gauges and the indicator lights have to be able to accommodate a large amount of information and display it to the operator of the vehicle in an intuitive and streamlined manner, so the operator can respond to the information and still drive safely.

When considering a transition from individuals to clusters, maximize cost savings by implementing a solution that can easily be standardized for a variety of vehicles, eliminating custom-engineering costs. Be sure to work with a supplier who has extensive experience in the field and can become a true partner in developing a cluster for a specific vehicle.

Some guidelines to keep in mind include the quality of integrated hardware and software in the cluster. Integrating gauges, LCDs, and warning lights into one cluster eliminates extraneous hardware, software, and peripheral wiring, reducing overall costs as well as installation costs. The supplier should provide a solution that features robust, reliable, and repeatable electronics that seamlessly integrate with the software and other electronic systems in the cabin.

Also important is rapid, reliable production. Because of the reliability that’s required for instrument clusters, choose a supplier that has implemented Six Sigma or other lean manufacturing techniques to ensure that all the clusters will have the same dependable results. Products that are designed for zero defects use technologies that are capable of driving breakthroughs and processes that optimize repeatability, standardization, error-proofing, and flow.

Whatever solution is chosen, it should be one that can be standardized for all of a company’s line of vehicles. However, if the vehicle has special needs, the supplier should be able to provide custom-engineering expertise to solve any challenges. In addition, some suppliers can even provide systems testing and a complete knock down kit.

Suppliers with locations around the world can draw on local resources and manufacturing capability to increase time to market and provide hands-on customer support throughout the entire life cycle of the product.

OEMs in the agricultural and construction markets can reap significant benefits when they transition from gauges to integrated instrument clusters in a variety of vehicles. Instrument clusters have shown significant value in terms of reducing costs on parts, as well as installation costs, for OEMs. When it’s time to transition from individual gauges to clusters, it is important to select a supplier with the right expertise, customer support, and global network to develop an instrument cluster that’s the perfect solution for your particular needs.

Robert Viscosi, Global Leader, Applications Engineering for Maxima Technologies, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.

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