The challenges in automotive powertrain development may never be greater. Financial difficulties have led to cutbacks in staff and new engine development programs. At the same time, the need for improved powertrains is driven by rising gasoline prices, looming Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, and concern about greenhouse gas emissions. If OEMs indeed need to do more engineering with fewer resources to meet these challenges, consulting engineers may expect a busy future, despite the current slowdown.
Engineering consulting companies dedicated to powertrain share some things in common—smart, experienced engineers; substantial internal R&D budgets to keep them sharp; and a vision of the future of automotive powertrain development that includes them. The business models they use to meet these needs can vary in some interesting ways.
Advantages of consulting
One could speculate that an automotive OEM, the most likely customer for a consulting company, might prefer to keep hard-won engineering expertise to itself. That may prove a luxury no longer affordable. There are models others can look to for inspiration. “The strategy for some companies in Europe is to keep their own engineering groups rather lean and flexible,” explained Utz-Jens Beister, President of IAV Automotive Engineering. While having the technical expertise to develop a complete powertrain including engine, transmission, and control units, engineers in these companies oversee the whole process and bring in specialized companies for specific tasks, according to Beister. “For example, BMW and Porsche use this concept to control costs and keep their teams flexible. They are able to react quickly to market and technology trends,” he said. He points out that they have established specific strategies and organizational structures for working with external companies.
Tasks a consulting company such as IAV can provide are, among others, performing the necessary but repetitive project work already understood by the customer company; OEMs are then able to focus on the next development tasks. A good example is powertrain calibration, a bread-and-butter assignment for many powertrain consultants. “As an OEM, you want to do the first variant yourself. You need to know how it works and develop knowledge to communicate to suppliers. But to do the other [additional variants of a vehicle model], that is where an engineering service provider can be very cost- and time-effective,” said Beister. He explained that in Germany IAV has 800 to 1000 calibrators working on various projects, using tools and methods developed within IAV for both dynamometer and in-vehicle calibration. Other tasks he feels to be cost-effective are validation and verification testing, detailed design, developing DVP&Rs (design, verification, plan, and report), releasing parts, and evening out workloads when an OEM faces a temporary shortage of skilled engineers.
Another motivation for using consultants is the trend for more joint programs between OEMs. For example, IAV worked for General Motors to develop the two-mode hybrid system. The two-mode was developed in partnership with Chrysler, Daimler, and BMW. Eventually, IAV ended up working for the consortium, providing technical expertise and serving as a “firewall” in protecting the transfer of intellectual property (IP) among them.
IAV sees potential in North America by leveraging its expertise with smaller, fuel-efficient engines in Europe. To support larger "turn-key" projects, the company invested in its new Technical Center in Northville, MI. IAV’s controls, calibration, and design expertise is now augmented with a 40,000-square-foot Powertrain Test Facility that includes four test cells, one dedicated to hybrid-electric engine testing. IAV also offers a suite of software tools and data acquisition equipment.
Engineering tools as a foundation
AVL offers a slightly different model. It not only provides a comprehensive suite of engineering services through its Powertrain Engineering group, but it also offers an extensive suite of instrumentation, test system, and advanced simulation technologies. It has sold these to OEMs, test labs, and even competitors in the engineering services business. These tools—from "turnkey" dynamometer test cells for analyzing powertrains to complete vehicle test cells and everything in between—are primarily the same ones it uses itself.
Today’s complexity of powertrain options and configurations is growing, challenging any human mind to grasp completely all possibilities, to paraphrase a description by Andrew Smart, Business Development Manager of AVL Powertrain Engineering. At the same time, financial pressures drive the need for building fewer expensive prototypes tuned by fewer engineers even while vehicle brands need to differentiate their driveability experience. The answer is more simulation and more test beds, according to him.
“Our vision is to bring everything together, from road to lab to math,” said Smart. To achieve this goal means creating a mathematical model fed with data from running vehicles on test tracks, chassis rolls, and powertrains in test cells. The customer uses the resulting system model, including hardware-in-the-loop, to create a differentiated final calibration. “We offer an integrated tool set that includes a complete vehicle simulation model tool linked to a thermodynamic real-time engine model, which then links to an objective driveability tool. With this suite, engineers can perform complete optimization.” This integrated tool set, for example, could include AVL-Cameo for design of experiments; AVL-Cruise for modeling vehicle, controller, and powertrain systems; AVL-VSM for vehicle simulations; and AVL-Drive for evaluation of test vehicle response data. Other simulation tools offered by AVL analyze CFD to structural dynamics, among many others.
AVL Powertrain uses these tools in its own installed base for use in engineering services contracts. “In [the engineering consulting] business, it is vital to have an installed base of technology,” explained Smart. This installed base includes 21 test sites for engine, transmission, and powertrain testing in the USA, including a facility in Beloit, WI, for testing engines up to 10 MW and a new technical center in Lake Forest, CA. The California facility is specifically dedicated to electric vehicle development (HEV, PHEV, EV), including four-wheel powertrain developments. Its interests are not limited to automotive engines as it has expertise and background in designing engines used on ships to those on handheld garden equipment.
Other companies that combine engineering services with delivery of test and data acquisition equipment such as dynamometers include FEV Powertrain. It also provides predefined packaged test cells for development, thermodynamics, combustion, or end-of-line testing.
Components and consulting
Mahle Powertrain brings another perspective to its consulting business, both from its roots in the original Cosworth—from Formula One race and high-performance road car engines to its present as part of Mahle group. Mahle is a $7-billion/year company that is a major global supplier of pistons, cylinder components, valvetrains, and other engine components. While calibration, emissions, and durability testing—such as the other powertrain consultants—is a significant part of its business base, its association with a component supplier gives it a different vision. “We bring the expertise of Mahle with its components and subsystem capabilities to our customers combined with our complete engine consulting expertise,” explained Alan McEwan, Director of Business Development for Mahle Powertrain.
It seeks work from basic engine and vehicle testing through to "clean sheet’ design. McEwan points out it produces low volumes of key engine parts, such as cast engine blocks, cylinder heads, as well as complete engine assemblies. An example of this was Mahle Powertrain developing and then assembling the Audi RS6 twin turbocharged engine. “Mahle has over 100 plants worldwide, so there are some major opportunities for us to use existing plant facilities as a base to duplicate these capabilities. Because we are part of a much bigger organization, we are able to leverage the company's local support organization in all areas of the world where automotive OEMs are developing powertrains," explained McEwan. For instance, it could help an OEM with an entree to Brazil because of the new technology center it opened near Sao Paulo. There are 29 engine test cells available in Mahle facilities where everything from chainsaw engines to 19-L diesel workhorses are tested. Additionally, the company boasts a unique oil consumption measuring system in Muskegon that uses trace radioactivity to accurately measure consumption at any speed and load point in a five-minute time interval. “We are doing a lot of testing for companies such as NaturalDrive that offer kits to convert fleets to alternative fuels such as CNG,” said McEwan about the company's AWD CARB recognized vehicle emissions test facility.
While acknowledging that a capable facility base is important for a consultant, he also sees a slightly different scenario that perhaps de-emphasizes such installed base. “I believe the Detroit Three in particular have an abundance of excellent facilities but, due to circumstances, now have a lack of manpower and capabilities [in skilled engineering],” explained McEwan.
Building cars and consulting
Lotus Engineering brings yet another perspective to engineering consulting from its sibling relationship with an actual OEM, Lotus Cars. However, there is a difference in focus even while the association with a company that builds and sells vehicles gives them a unique perspective. “Compared to our parent car company, Lotus Engineering is a technology company vs. an automotive design company,” explained Don Graunstadt, CEO of the North American subsidiary of Lotus Engineering. It offers many services familiar to a powertrain consulting firm, including simulation tools, qualified staff, and a facility with 27 test cells that can use one of 90 different dynamometers ranging from 1 to 5000 hp (0.7 to 3730 kW) models. Besides extensive calibration work, his group also engineers powertrain integrations as well as full vehicle, suspension, and chassis engineering, bringing to bear Lotus’ known expertise in lightweight structures.
However, its place within Group Lotus gives it a wide perspective. “The fact that we are a car manufacturer gives us a unique insight into product. We are not going to invent something or create something that you can’t manufacture,” said Graunstadt. Worldwide, Lotus Engineering provides design and engineering both to Lotus Cars and to Proton Motors of Malaysia, the owner of Group Lotus. “We also act as technology integrators, the bridge between the people that invent new technology” and completing the vehicle engineering needed to create a car to today’s standards of ride, handling, and safety. A good example of this model is the development of the Tesla all-electric Roadster. Graunstadt’s group performed some of the original concept work. Then, the product engineering transitioned to Lotus Engineering in the U.K. while Tesla built up its engineering staff, with the roadster eventually built in the Lotus U.K. factory.
He also reports working with Bright Automotive, a new start-up in the field of PHEVs, and with Motor Excellence, a start-up with a reportedly innovative electric motor concept. “Motor Excellence builds motors—we have the ability to take that motor and put it into transportation in creative ways. Our goal is to convert a Lotus Elise into an electric car that performs as well as the current gas version, with more range at the same price,” explained Graunstadt. It's an exciting goal that demonstrates how some consulting engineers think. “I want to change the world."