GM adds to technical capabilities in China

  • 24-Jun-2013 11:20 EDT
1. GM China Advanced Technical Center Overview.jpg

Research into lightweight materials, battery testing, and component durability are among multiple engineering departments at GM's New Advanced Technology Center in Shanghai.

As General Motors continues to enjoy steady growth in the huge Chinese auto market, the company is investing in local engineering and research facilities to support current and future products.

The latest example of this investment is the GM Advanced Technical Center (ATC) in Shanghai. The second phase of the ATC opened late last year, and equipment is still being installed as the center comes up to speed.

Compared to GM’s existing joint venture engineering centers in China—notably the 3000 engineer-strong PATAC (Pan-Asia Technical Automotive Center) facility, also in Shanghai—the ATC operation is small, but it is a wholly owned GM facility and will play a key role in important research and development areas.

The engineering staff, under the leadership of Debbie Murphy, currently numbers 85 but will likely grow to around 100 people. ATC has several primary tasks including vehicle and powertrain engineering, parts evaluation, materials research, and importantly, battery technology evaluation and testing.

The latter is a key focus for ATC, because fuel-economy standards in the Chinese market are becoming much more stringent. As a result, there is a pressing need for research into battery technology and for potential sources of local battery production.

“In terms of battery technology, there are a few Chinese suppliers with decent capabilities,” said Murphy. “In the U.S., we are relying on Japanese and Korean battery technology and suppliers, but in China local content is necessary to qualify for tax breaks here.”

ATC’s battery systems lab includes testing capabilities for cells, modules, and packs, including static capacity and hybrid pulse power characterization tests, calendar life, and cycle life tests. The lab equipment can conduct tests to specifications from organizations such as GMW, U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), and FreedomCAR.

As well as the battery lab, ATC’s capabilities include vehicle assessment and benchmarking, concept vehicle integration, structures and chassis testing, electrical and HVAC labs, and materials and fastening labs.

Of special interest is ATC’s state-of-the-art testing equipment, which includes a five-axis CNC (computer numerical control) machine, CNC water-jet cutter, blue-light scanner, a micro-foundry, and a vacuum-forming oven. The blue-light scanner enables engineers to extract math data from chassis frames or other objects to check for dimensional accuracy more easily and faster than previous methods. The three-axis cutter can slice through 60 mm (2.4 in) thick steel, with the ultrahigh pressure process producing sparks despite the presence of water. Equally useful to the engineering team is the vacuum oven, which allows ATC to produce prototype parts such as bumpers at a fraction of the cost and time it would take an outside supplier.

In terms of materials development, ATC takes a close interest in magnesium. John Du, Director of the Science Lab, explained that China dominates the world magnesium market, producing 80% of the global supply. As a result, ATC is a natural venue for focusing on the lightest material available to the automotive industry other than carbon fiber.

Magnesium parts being studied in the ATC lab include the inner decklid panel for the Cadillac CTS and the seat frame of the new-generation Chevrolet Corvette. According to Du, research is centering on finding methods to deal with magnesium’s corrosion problems; currently expensive coatings are needed to prevent corrosion when magnesium is in contact with other metals.

Another completely different area of development under way at ATC centers is infotainment system research. “In China, infotainment is a hot topic,” noted Du. GM cars such as various Cadillac and Buick models sold in China come with OnStar and infotainment systems but without apps such as Facebook and Pandora found on equivalent U.S. models. Instead, Chinese consumers expect apps such as the Twitter-like Weibo on their vehicles, so it is up to ATC to properly integrate these and other social media channels on local models. “It’s more than just what apps we present, it’s how we present them and how we frame the user experience, to make it more user-friendly,” said Du.

Whether it is infotainment systems, magnesium body parts, or batteries, the areas being developed by ATC will be critical to GM’s future products in China. And with a market predicted to grow to 35 million units by 2022, this relatively small research operation is destined to have a big impact.

“What I am most excited about is [that] by having research and development, vehicle engineering, powertrain engineering, OnStar validation and development, engineering, design all under one roof, we can get a lot of collaboration between our teams and joint-venture partners,” said Murphy.

“We will continue growing our partner relationships, using our joint ventures for the program execution work and continue growing our capabilities so we can strengthen our local product development," Murphy added. “Having this facility means we can keep track of the competition and understand the Chinese consumer preferences.”

GM China success

GM’s relatively early investment in the modern Chinese market has paid off in spades, even as the company has struggled in other world markets. In 2012, the automaker sold 2.8 million cars and trucks in China, marking the third year in succession that it has sold more vehicles there than in the U.S.

“Growth has been unprecedented,” says Bob Socia, President of GM China. “It is becoming more competitive, but there are still lots of opportunities.”

According to Socia, China’s future growth will be greater than the next nine world markets combined. By 2022, the forecasts are for China to account for a staggering 30-35 million sales.

Despite some recent financial hiccups in China, GM’s sales so far in 2013 have been very strong. Last month alone the company sold a record-breaking 261,000 units, up by 15%, with strong performances by Buick, Chevrolet, and Cadillac brands. Combined with its joint-venture brands, GM’s total Chinese sales, year to date, have already topped 1 million units.

John McCormick wrote this article for AEI.

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