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Why auto engineering must keep up with the times

Automotive engineering was largely confined to engine and fuel efficiency. This is now changing.

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One of the biggest trends right now in automotive engineering is improving engine efficiency and fuel economy. This includes downsizing, down-speeding, direct fuel injection, and boosting. Other engineering trends focus on improving transmissions (which include adding speeds), accessory load reduction through intelligent energy management of other vehicle components, vehicle electrification, hybridisation, improved battery management systems, new battery chemistries, and power electronics.

Weight reduction in vehicle subsystems is also tested by using lightweight structures made from alternative materials such as aluminum, magnesium, composites, plastics, and multi-material construction.

Vijay Kalra, chief of manufacturing, automotive division, Mahindra & Mahindra, says, "The manufacturing industry, as we know, is fundamentally changing, with advanced technologies increasingly underpinning global competitiveness and economic prosperity. The technologies are transforming the future of manufacturing and as a global manufacturing company we are constantly exploring ways to best tap into this disruptive shift to evolve, grow, and thrive."

Considering the competitive nature of the automotive world, various organisations across the world seek to create higher value in their automotive products for the customers. This growing competitiveness is leading to customers demanding high-quality products with better functionality, without an increase in price. The OEMs in the automotive industry must include projects that are designed to lower the product cost and enhance the value to the customer.
Automotive companies are also taking a good hard look at design, which is what makes or breaks a vehicle. Design of a vehicle can start 4-5 years before a vehicle can be launched.

For instance, Tata Motors is keen that the company makes cars that are distinct and different. Mayank Pareek, president of passenger vehicle business unit, Tata Motors, says, "This philosophy we call as impact design. Our three design studios (London, Italy, and Pune) work concurrently to bring out impactful designs. Considering that it takes four years to come up with a new design, we are now looking at designing cars for 2022."

The company has worked out a strategy of 'Turnaround 2.0' that stands on three pillars—sales enhancement, cost reduction, and improving efficiencies. This is where Sanand plays an important role. The whole idea is to win sustainability in PVs. A lean manufacturing process plays a key role in its growth strategy, enabling the Sanand plant to contribute around 60% of the overall PV production. The plant has already achieved WCQ 3 level in quality standards and we are proud of this achievement.

Engineering is not restricted to four-wheelers alone. A two-wheeler may not look as complex as a four-wheeler, but requires intense engineering. Kailash J Zanzari, sr. VP, manufacturing, Bajaj Auto, says, "We believe in two kinds of improvements: Technology and system improvement. In terms of technology improvements, it would mean seeking out ways to execute unmanned production, while improving quality. Quality in the automotive sector means ways to improve the milli values of the component, so that clean components can be delivered to the assembly line. Often, few companies care to give importance to the washing operation and this is where we paid attention and it has paid off. Components are washed and dried before they reach the assembly line. This is an important aspect from the engine and durability point of view." Another innovation the company carried out is ensuring higher quality of components like the washer and getting better quality in terms of bore-to-face perpendicular tip, and surface finish which has helped in improving the engine quality.

Making the complex simple
A vehicle is composed of complex sub-systems and interfaces. If you are targeting a cost reduction in a complete automobile, it’s imperative to understand the build-up costs involved in manufacturing of the vehicle. The cost build-up in a vehicle begins right from the concepts designed for the simplest support brackets up to the last operation on the assembly line and further till the product is displayed in the showroom.

Engineering is followed by manufacturing smart. Novel engineering techniques involve advanced manufacturing processes and extensive use of cobots and robots. Kalra says, "We have started working on implementing Industry 4.0 to take our plants to the next level. Our objective is to deliver first-time-right products, improve our responsiveness and make our facilities flexible to deliver customised products. I have a dedicated team to implement the levers of Industry 4.0 such as IoT, data analytics, 3D printing, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, robotics, etc. There will be lot of thrust on robotics and automation as the cost of labour is going up and robots/cobot are becoming affordable."

However, he says that when trying to implement new technologies, it is important that shop floor people are reskilled for using and maintaining this technology. "Hence, we have implemented mechatronics academy for making our people future ready.  We have also taken a target that in next two years our plants should become 'Smart Factory'." adds Kalra.

Dr Jochen Stallkamp, MD, BMW Group Plant Chennai, says, "At BMW Group Plant Chennai, 2018 has been the year of focus on ‘Lean Management’. The plant started its journey in Lean Management through a structured rollout of Value-added Production System (VPS). With a clear VPS vision, road map and management commitment, the involvement of every associate across the organisation has improved multifold. More than process implementations, Lean Management has been ingrained as an attitude and thought process among all levels of the workforce." Multiple workshops, team sessions and support from headquarters has further strengthened various aspects of lean production within the system. Efficiency levels of all processes such as production, planning, quality, logistics and direct/indirect services have been enhanced, including even the smallest of activities.

Improving efficiency
Engineers across automotive companies are also working to increase the efficiency of internal combustion (IC) engines by developing several advanced combustion modes. One of these modes is called HCCI (homogeneous charge compression ignition). In the HCCI combustion, a highly homogenised mixture of air, fuel, and combustion products from the previous cycle is auto-ignited by compression. This combustion mode aims at combining the advantages of modern diesel and gasoline combustion processes, namely low emissions and high efficiency.
A smaller but still significant aspect of fuel-efficiency research is called 'intelligent energy management'. The ability to more intelligently control the accessory loads in a vehicle—such as the alternator or power steering, etc.—also contribute to better gas mileage. With smarter control of these loads and the addition of stop-start technology there can be significant increases in fuel economy, with small or no increase in total vehicle cost.

Mahindra & Mahindra has a long sizable presence in the Indian market and understand customer needs. "At Mahindra we have even worked on the “customer value proposition” concept. In this, as against old method of costing 'cost+profit=sale price', we decide the target price first and accordingly design our products and processes to meet the target price. During this time, we take many sub-targets like overall vehicle weight, vehicle efficiency, conversion cost, etc. to achieve the final target price. This process helps us to provide globally competitive product, which will create a veritable appeal & pull for the customer." says Kalra.

In terms of fabrication, over the last five years, Bajaj Auto has moved to installing robots and the same has been emulated in its supply chain too. Considering that seasonal demand can double or triple, hiring manpower has been challenging. "Moving to robots helped us with the required increase in numbers and eliminated the challenge of training employees too. The assembly line has seen a  recent conversion to MES (Manufacturing Execution System) and all critical SOPs, right from production scheduling to outgoing goods is managed by MES," says Zanzari.
Overall, organisations can work at cost reduction through design innovation. This approach involves redesigning that can trigger resultant engineering changes to such an extent that it becomes a new product development in itself. The investment in this process is huge and has longer RoI period. These innovations should target towards a systematic combination of multiple functions which eliminate several others in turn and lower the overall cost.

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