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In developing Ford's new PHEV Transit Custom scheduled for 2019 SOP, Prodrive Advanced Technology brought a new set of agile processes. (Image: Ford).

Prodrive helps fast-track Ford’s new PHEV van program

Motorsport engineering and design consultancy Prodrive Advanced Technology has three decades of experience helping OEM customers get the most out of their high-performance vehicles, rapidly and efficiently.

Now, working with Ford, it has applied that expertise to the opposite end of the performance spectrum. Prodrive has just revealed its involvement in the completion of the design, integration, development and build of an initial batch of Transit Custom PHEV vans for London-based trials, with production planned for 2019. Ford is pioneering volume production of plug-in hybrid technology in this segment of the van market.

David Taylor, Managing Director of Prodrive Advanced Technology, believes that to meet the demanding timescales now required for the successful introduction of all types of hybrid, PHEV and EV using new, multi-faceted technologies, the industry needs to take a very close look at its processes.

He says that if cutting a hardware phase from a program was the strategy to deliver shorter timescales, the key to making such a plan viable was in the method of working. So Prodrive formed an "experienced, cross-functional team and used a systems approach to the many engineering challenges," Taylor explained. "We realized that established development processes for volume vehicles are complex and too slow and inflexible to bring so many new technologies to market within the required timescales. More agile processes were needed, with a different skill set."

He said this approach uses nimbler processes "because of the team's different culture and blend of expertise.”

Established product development methods, though exhaustive, are complex and highly procedural, he noted. They take many years to bring new products to market, yet the industry is looking for ways to accelerate the introduction of EVs without compromising design rigor or the levels of validation.

Avoiding unneeded demo vehicles

Fast-tracking the development of pure EVs and electrified vehicles is not just about saving time; there are also serious cost pressures to tackle.

Established practice is to develop new technology off-line and “bookshelf” it for adoption into a future vehicle program downstream, anticipating and facilitating the innovation necessary for a company to remain competitive and avoid any unnecessary commercial risk, stated Taylor. This may involve a third-party research organization or an academically based ‘incubation’ unit to reach technology demonstrator phase.

Both speed-of-response and the avoidance of unnecessary demonstrators between proof-of-concept and production-ready products, are essential for the rapid evolution of manufacturing processes–and to keep ahead of competitors. Its competition-focused heritage makes fast program delivery "part of Prodrive’s DNA,” said Taylor.

For the Transit Custom PHEV program, which is partially funded by the U.K. government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), a limited production run of trial vehicles is being produced, with 20 operated in London with fleet users including the Metropolitan Police. The vehicles will have a zero-emission capability of over 50 km (31 mi) in electric mode and a total range of more than 500 km (310 mi) using Ford’s established 3-cylinder gasoline engine as a range extender.

The Transit PHEVs 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 program was challenging in both timing and technical scope.

Prodrive’s tasks were to integrate into the existing vehicle the (non-standard to vehicle) ICE; underfloor high voltage battery and control system; electric motor and axle; EPAS; HVAC; fuel tank; and all supporting systems such as fuel and cooling. The tight confines of the package necessitated some body-in-white (BIW) changes. All engineering work had to be validated for public road fleet trials via regular drivers (not auto industry testers).

Small-team advantages

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 explained. "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.”

Changes to the 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. Taylor said the key to success is understanding what the OEM's processes are there for, and to ensure that the proposed solutions are equally robust. It's also essential to understand all of the customer's engineering procedures and quality systems and have Prodrive teams sufficiently embedded to be able to work in parallel, with mutual trust and understanding.

Taylor gives as an example of this approach, the packaging of additional systems. In addition to using conventional 3D CAD procedures for the Transit PHEVs, Prodrive found that a physical hardware buck was invaluable for optimizing a number of installations. 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.

“Faster progress and more reliable solutions were obtained by using a physical buck, then reverse engineering the results back into the CAD master," he said. "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 visualize and appreciate the bigger picture. Taylor believes the industry will see a lot more of this way of working as the OEMs, now increasingly focused on new electrified and EV design, search for ways to meet their new product development schedules.

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