4 November 2017


Increasing pressure from cities and governments around the world to limit urban access solely to electric vehicles (EVs), in the quest for improved air quality, has created an unprecedented challenge for the automotive industry. Established product development methods, though exhaustive, are complex and heavily proceduralised, taking many years to bring new products to market. The industry is looking for ways to accelerate the introduction of EVs without compromising design rigour or the levels of validation.

Fast-tracking the development of EVs and HEVs is not just about saving time; there are serious cost pressures too. Ford’s recent announcement that it would cut back investment in combustion engines and certain car models, in order to increase EV funding, illustrates the scale of the challenge.

Established practice is to develop new technology ‘off-line’ and ‘bookshelf’ it for adoption into a future vehicle program downstream; this enables the innovation necessary for a company to remain competitive to take place without risking the commercial disaster of unforeseen technical issues disrupting a vehicle launch schedule. An OEM may even use a third-party research organisation or an academically based ‘incubation’ unit to reach the milestone of a technology demonstrator that proves the concept.

This raises a second issue; the ‘graveyard’ that exists between proof-of-concept demonstrators and production-ready high-volume products. Many of the technologies on the bookshelf never make it into production, for a variety of reasons. Assumptions made during the concept work may become invalidated by subsequent events; manufacturing process technology suitable for series production may not evolve quickly enough; competitor developments may eclipse the original concept; limited funding during the concept phase may mean that insurmountable issues are not identified until after a target application has been selected.

David Taylor, managing director of Prodrive Advanced Technology, believes that to meet the demanding timescales now required for the introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles, the industry needs to take a close look at its processes. Prodrive has just completed the design, integration, development and build of an initial batch of Ford's new Transit Custom PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) van for London-based trials, with commercial production planned in 2019. Ford will be the first volume manufacturer to offer PHEV technology in this segment of the van market; an accolade it has achieved with the support of Prodrive’s fast-track processes.

In a program partially funded by the UK government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), a limited production run of 27 trial vehicles is being produced. High-profile fleet trials, supported by Transport for London, will see 20 of the PHEV Transits at work in the UK capital with a number of large fleet users, including the Metropolitan Police and British Gas, designed to help improve local air quality by running solely on electric power for the majority of city trips. The vehicles will have a zero-emission capability  in electric mode and a total range of more than 500 km (310 miles) using the petrol engine as a range extender. They use a series hybrid driveline configuration, with the road wheels driven exclusively by an electric motor, having no direct mechanical connection to the combustion engine.

The PHEV Transit program was challenging in both timing and the technical scope. Prodrive’s tasks were to integrate into the existing vehicle a non-standard engine (the award-winning 1.0 litre EcoBoost) as a range extender, high voltage battery and control system, electric motor and axle, EPAS, HVAC, fuel tank and all the supporting systems such as fuel and cooling. The tight confines of the package necessitated some body-in-white changes and all the engineering work had to be validated for public road fleet trials with regular, non-expert drivers.

If cutting a hardware phase from the program was the strategy to deliver shorter timescales, the key to making such a plan work was in the method of working. Prodrive formed an experienced cross-functional team and used a systems approach to the engineering challenges.

"Established development processes for volume vehicles are complex and were just too slow and inflexible to bring so many new technologies to market within the required timescales, " Taylor explains. "More agile processes were needed, with a different skill set. This approach is not about cutting corners; it’s about looking at the programme requirements from a different perspective, with access to processes that are nimbler because of the team's different culture and blend of expertise."

Taylor points to the cultural differences between a large OEM and a smaller engineering consultancy. “The sheer breadth of activity in an OEM means that, in order to exercise effective control and maintain the desired level of expertise, many engineers concentrate on specific fields and develop their expertise within departmental boundaries,” he says. “In a company like ours, smaller teams of experienced, multi-disciplined engineers working within less constrained processes, are able to use a more agile, more collaborative approach, saving both time and cost while maintaining design and quality standards.”

Taylor points out that something fundamental, like a change to the actual design or validation process, can be more easily accommodated within a small team that is not constrained by the interdependence of so many departments and the associated communication challenges. The key to success, though, is to understand what the vehicle manufacturer’s processes are there for, and to ensure that the proposed solutions are equally robust. “As one of the world’s most successful motorsport constructors, fast program delivery is part of Prodrive’s DNA. But when engineering a production vehicle, this is only half the requirement,” emphasises Taylor. “It’s essential that we also understand all of the vehicle manufacturer’s engineering procedures and quality systems and have our teams sufficiently embedded to be able to work in parallel, with mutual trust and understanding.”

An example of this approach is in the packaging of additional systems, which was particularly demanding in the Ford application. In addition to using conventional 3D CAD procedures, Prodrive found that a physical hardware buck was invaluable for optimizing a number of installations, according to Taylor. “Cable routing and hose runs are typical features that can vary appreciably from their nominal positions defined in a CAD layout. When packaging space is at a premium, they must be defined more accurately,” he said. “Faster progress and more reliable solutions were obtained by using a physical buck, then reverse engineering the results back into the CAD master. It’s a good example of how a different approach enabled by a different skill set can deliver the solution more quickly.”

“Engineers in smaller teams can often see the bigger picture,” he concludes. “They can make the correct judgements about trade-offs between components or systems that, in a larger organisation, might require interaction between several levels of management across different departments and a number of meetings to reach the same conclusion. I think we’ll see a lot more of this way of working as the vehicle manufacturers search for ways to meet their new product development schedules.


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Ben Sayer

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