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Dana is developing a wide selection of technologies to transform passive drivetrain components into intelligent, powerful systems for boosting performance across a range of vehicle markets.

Mechatronics technology offers improvements in performance and efficiency

As a company founded on innovation, Dana Inc. has been a technology leader since Clarence Spicer invented the encased universal joint in 1904 and changed the trajectory of the vehicle industry. The needs of vehicle buyers have drastically evolved since then, and technology has rapidly progressed in order to achieve leaps in efficiency and performance.

Dana continues to move the industry forward today by addressing the challenges presented by advancing technology and the evolution of mobility—global megatrends that are impacting engineering, design and manufacturing.

Vehicle evolution is now driven by ever-increasing requirements for safety, mobility, and productivity along with global emissions and fuel efficiency standards. OEMs and suppliers must meet the demand for full-systems engineering capabilities beyond isolated mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems.

Gains achieved from lightweighting, direct fuel injection and turbocharging have been vital to achieving significant improvements in performance and efficiency. However, mechanical solutions alone cannot solve these challenges. Integrated electronics and software solutions are key for overall system design strategies.

One example is the emergence of smart, connected vehicles, which have quickly increased demands for improved safety, connectivity and driver productivity across all vehicle markets. Another example of the global need for innovation is the “Made in China 2025” initiative to upgrade Chinese industry. This comprehensive plan to drive innovation into manufacturing places a priority on new, high-efficiency manufacturing solutions for new vehicles and equipment.

With roots in many other engineering disciplines, the field of mechatronics has emerged as an innovation driver. This multidisciplinary field combines mechanical engineering, electronics and software in an integrated design process that allows new products to be developed in a cost-effective way with greater efficiency. Mechatronics has been called the new language of the automobile, and its principles also apply to other vehicle segments to generate simpler, economical systems with greater reliability.

The term “mechatronics” was coined by Tetsuro Mori, an engineer for Yaskawa Electric Corp. in 1969, and it has been studied in Europe and parts of Asia for many years. But the U.S. manufacturing industry is just beginning to embrace this design philosophy to its full extent, and there are many benefits to reap.

Fostering a hybrid discipline

Mechatronics integrates several disciplines, and the field requires uniquely hybrid engineers with a background across multiple competencies. A thorough understanding of mechanics, electronics and software is required.

The sophistication of equipment is growing at an accelerated rate, and manufacturers are increasingly adopting mechatronic technology to achieve performance and efficiency gains in the next generation of vehicles. Dana has an entire facility dedicated to the study of this methodology for engineering and design. The Dana Mechatronics Technology Center in Rovereto, Italy, is located in the noted Polo della Meccatronica di Rovereto, a cluster of companies, university departments, research centers and other industrial accelerators devoted to mechatronics.

The center is used to identify and leverage mechatronics system development opportunities with off-highway equipment manufacturers, facilitate co-development and networking opportunities with high-tech collaborators, and attract engineering talent. Dana is also developing significant mechatronics capabilities in its other global technical centers to support the light vehicle, commercial vehicle, and off-highway markets.

Realizing the potential of mechatronics

Early mechatronics applications solved basic challenges and proved the value of these complex systems. For example, intelligent safety features incorporating sensors such as anti-lock brake systems (ABS) have become an almost standard light vehicle feature, improving traction and stability control.

But now, challenges such as fuel efficiency, autonomous vehicles and electrification require solutions that are much more complex. Dana is actively developing a wide selection of leading-edge technologies to transform passive drivetrain components into intelligent, powerful systems for boosting performance across a range of vehicle markets.

The Spicer Electrified portfolio of fully integrated motor, control, and e-drive technologies is designed to advance electric and hybrid propulsion systems. Dana is working with automotive manufacturers to develop all-wheel-drive (AWD) e-axles that deliver superior performance, packaging and reliability while meeting customer demand for AWD functionality paired with traditional front-wheel-drive capability. Additionally, Dana's new Spicer Electrified e-axles for electric transit buses and city delivery vehicles feature a fully integrated motor and gearbox and leverage our vast experience in chassis drivetrain applications. These e-axles are planned for launch in 2018.

In the off-highway market, Spicer Smart Suite technology has been developed as a platform of fully integrated, connected-vehicle features that converts operating data from the drivetrain to enhance productivity, improve operator and machine safety, and reduce total operating costs. This integrated system collects, manages, analyzes, communicates and acts on data sourced from the drivetrain, including load monitoring, condition monitoring, torque management, speed sensing, and steering sensing. This technology provides useful information to end users and fleet management centers, allowing critical alerts and analysis to be shared on vehicle central display panels and via tablets. It is also designed to take data and analysis a step further by performing key functions independent of operator intervention.

The first application of Spicer Smart Suite technology is a new intelligent load monitoring system (ILMS) for telehandlers. While traditional load monitoring technology collects measurements from a single remote-mounted or retrofitted load cell on the rear axle, Spicer ILMS uses data from across the vehicle to prevent tip-overs more effectively, provide better estimates of static loads, and supply more intelligent calibration management.

Hydromechanical variable transmission (HVT) technology is another example of mechatronic design in current use. A product of the joint venture between Dana and Bosch Rexroth, HVTs from Dana Rexroth feature a power-split design and significantly reduce fuel consumption by decreasing engine speeds throughout the duty cycle and also at idle. Dana Rexroth HVTs enable sensitive, precise vehicle positioning with a stepless drive that offers improved acceleration while maintaining tractive effort. The HVT system designed by Dana Rexroth helps reduce complexity, as the entire system of gears, clutches, and hydrostatic units is managed by an advanced electronic control unit (ECU).

Mechatronics delivers benefits for drivetrain systems, but the technology is also playing a growing role in work circuit products. Electronically controlled hydraulics provide smoother operation as well as higher precision and repeatability. Dana’s line of Brevini fluid power systems includes a range of electronic control systems and valves that can sense and respond to conditions as they change, helping to automate decision making, optimize efficiency, and improve safety.

Investment in the future

Today’s industry demands cannot be met with mechanical solutions alone. Advanced engineering designs are required, and the successful integration of mechatronics into vehicle design will require collaboration among vehicle manufacturers, suppliers, universities, researchers and end-user customers.

Dana's ongoing investment in R&D to support innovative technologies, together with the Dana Mechatronics Technology Center and all of Dana’s global technology centers, demonstrates our commitment to securing the resources and talent required to build on more than a century of engineering leadership. Last year, Dana invested $196 million in engineering, which represents the seventh consecutive annual increase in expenditures to support our customers.

This commitment to innovation has resulted in clear dividends, as Dana’s backlog of new business continues to grow and Dana engineers recently increased the number of patent applications by more than 50% over the previous year. Dana was also awarded its 10,000th patent in 2016.

Dana’s R&D efforts have allowed us to draw upon an extensive portfolio of innovations to provide our customers with optimal solutions quickly and cost-effectively. Our mission is to continuously improve the performance and efficiency of vehicles and machines.

We occupy a unique position as one of the few suppliers that delivers advanced technologies to all major vehicle markets—passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, and off-highway machines—as well as stationary industrial equipment. With this broad engineering footprint and operations in 34 countries around the world, Dana is positioned to leverage our technology, processes and talent to help customers utilize the benefits of mechatronics in all of the end markets that we serve.

George Constand, Chief Technical Officer at Dana Inc., wrote this article for Truck & Off-Highway Engineering as part of our annual Executive Viewpoints series.

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