Torotrak R&D spawns flywheel, hybrid innovations

  • 19-Aug-2013 07:25 EDT
Torotrak08-13Flybrid Torotrak cutaway.jpg

The M-KERS flywheel hybrid system is an example of small innovation business R&D that can be readied for volume production by a global manufacturer.

How can Tier 1 suppliers' R&D activities stay ahead of the rising challenges of global emissions, safety, and communications technologies? Jeremy Deering offers that working with small, more nimble external partners enables the big companies to bypass what he terms are the “high-risk early stages” by feeding validated technologies into their development processes in a phase that is close to volume production.

Deering, the CEO of Torotrak, a U.K.-based engineering company specializing in gearless traction drive systems, cites the IT industry's model as an example worth emulating by automotive, as it moves to "keep the product pipelines full for less cost and substantially less risk.”

But many innovation companies fail because of their inability to quickly, cost effectively, and robustly turn innovations into market-ready technology. And that is just where Torotrak has changed its strategy. It has invested in low-volume supply to make it easier for the Tier 1s to achieve more decisive investments in new technologies that will make their business more competitive – the sort of technologies that are the company's hallmark.

“We have identified that the biggest barrier to commercialization of an innovation is confirming the competitive advantage for a customer when every factor is taken into account," Deering told AEI. "So we refocused our engineering capability to provide precisely the expertise and resources required during this critical stage.”

Being small can be an advantage for the innovators. Torotrak itself doesn’t have volume manufacturing capability, but it has greatly increased its ability to supply prototype and pilot volumes to help its Tier 1 customers bridge this gap. “This helps a Tier 1 establish the technical and commercial viability of the technology while also creating a growing income stream for Torotrak," explained company Chairman John Weston. "It’s an approach based on the commercial needs of Tier 1s, moving away from the traditional approach of trying to sell them a relatively unproven idea.”

V-Charge and flywheel systems

For car applications, Torotrak’s technologies are aimed at downsized engine solutions and hybridization (via flywheel systems) where the designs offer cost and packaging benefits. Its V-Charge variable-drive supercharger for gasoline and diesel engines, now entering a new test and demonstration phase of the latest V2 version, is claimed to be capable of boosting torque from zero to 95% in less than 400 ms, which overcomes one of the liabilities of engine downsizing.

Using a low cost electromechanical actuator, the V-Charge is applicable to engines up to 3.0-L. It is positioned on the cold side of the engine (it reduces back pressure) which results in enhanced catalyst performance and increased engine efficiency for rapid ratio change, Deering claimed. The system is being evaluated for potential low volume launch in 2015. The second-generation prototype is close to production design.

V-Charge could complement small hybrid systems, an area on which Torotrak is placing particular emphasis. Company engineers believe flywheel technology is a solution to the cost and packaging challenges that hybridization currently presents. A flywheel-based energy storage system developed by Flybrid Automotive,  a company in which Torotrak holds a 20% share, is claimed to deliver performance that is similar to established HEV powertrains with superior packaging, at about one-third the cost.

Flybrid's Managing Director, Jon Hilton, explains that it is difficult to make direct economy comparisons with regard to combined fuel consumption and emissions because these are calculated differently for each technology. “An electric system typically has a large battery and a useful range with the IC engine completely switched off; a flywheel application does not.”

With regard to zero-emissions mode, Hilton explained that Flybrid's flywheel system will propel a vehicle for about half a mile – not impressive per se but very useful in managing the engine operating point. The flywheel could be used to power the car in parts of the drive cycle where the engine would be inefficient, he said.

Flywheel tests aim toward 2015 applications

Hilton is confident that OEMs will see the benefits of flywheel technology. Volvo has been testing the Flybrid system (designated M-KERS) on public roads in an S60 sedan. Combined with a four-cylinder turbocharged IC engine, flywheel technology has the potential to reduce fuel consumption by up to 25% compared to a six-cylinder turbo at a comparable performance level, said Derek Crabb, Volvo Car Group's Vice President, Powertrain Engineering. Installed in the S60, it helps the car achieve a 0-100 kph time of 5.5 s.

Volvo's work with the flywheel system remains experimental at present, according to company engineers. Other options are under consideration. The automaker first tested a flywheel in a Volvo 260 in the 1980s.

The Flybrid system is designed for full vehicle service life with no maintenance except a possible oil top-up, said Hilton. He added that “Flywheel safety concerns have been almost completely addressed now. This is being demonstrated via a test program and through a consortium program called FlySafe in partnership with Ricardo and Williams and is part funded by the U.K. Technology Strategy Board.”

Flybrid is gaining manufacturing experience via its own facilities and is set to gain significant benefits from Torotrak’s recent acquisition of Motorsport Components, which together with the company’s membership of the U.K. “Proving Factory” initiative, will provide the capability to deliver evaluation and development of components quickly, cost effectively, and at high quality levels.

Machining precision and component balancing are crucial for flywheel manufacture. “At present we don’t have a manufacturing route other than to machine it all over, facing it with a machine tool,” noted Hilton.

But development continues: Flybrid is installing machinery to enable pre-production parts to be built. These will be subjected to a test program throughout 2014 installed in a bus, with the potential of achieving Q1 production for commercial vehicle applications in 2015.

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