Schaeffler intends to produce its Bio Hybrid micro-mobility concept, a vehicle that could be seen as symbolic of the company's intent to stretch well beyond its mechanical-compoents roots. (Schaeffler)

Schaeffler ‘on a journey’ of propulsion transformation

There might be few more incisive examples of the industry’s organic technology transformation than what’s going on with Germany’s Schaeffler. The company’s name invariably arises in discussion of key baseline technology for all manner of driveline systems. An engineer from GM’s Global Propulsion Systems, for example, recently noted that GM collaborated with Schaeffler for development of an innovative damper for GM’s new 8-speed automatic transmission that varies its effect based on the amount of torque-converter slippage dictated by the powertrain controller.

The Schaeffler Group includes the 113-year-old FAG brand that’s intimately associated with specialty bearings and clutch and friction-material specialist LuK. Schaeffler’s foundation essentially rests on the “basics” of internal combustion-related technology.

Then what’s the idea with bricks-and-mortar in Silicon Valley and a new e-mobility business unit, both established early this year?

“Well, we're certainly on a journey,” said Jeff Hemphill, Vice-President and Chief Technical Officer of the Schaeffler Group for the Americas, in a recent interview with Automotive Engineering. “The technical founding of the company is the cage-guided needle roller bearing—it's about a least-electronic product you could think of,” he quips.

But with responsibility for new-product development, analysis and testing of transmission, engine and chassis components and systems for conventionally- and hybrid-powered vehicles, Hemphill and Schaeffler are enmeshed in the adoption of electrified technology and features that has become the byword of almost all major multinational suppliers.

What’s ‘new’ isn’t, really
It’s of course no secret, said Hemphill, that suppliers of “traditional” mechanical components and systems have for years been electrifying: “It's been 10 or 15 years, probably, that we got into what you would probably call ‘mechatronics’ or lead systems. That was started on the transmission side and now also on the engine side. We do a lot of actuation for dual-clutch transmissions, for example.

“And those are smart actuators with embedded microcontrollers and software and functional safety readings and the whole works. So, we now have a product that got our mechanical bits in it but, also has a printed circuit board and sensors and software with it.

"So we actually have quite a lot of experience with that. And, our mechanical background has really helped us with that. One of the things that we're most proud of is our degree of integration. One of our new [developments] is a hybrid module for this market. We can get the design engineers together and the production people together from all the little bits as well as from the system level—and think about new ways to integrate them.

“That has been for us pretty powerful. In that hybrid module, for example, it allowed us to take out, I want to say, 60 mm of axial length compared to the customer's original request—just because we [already] make the torque converters. And we were therefore able to figure out a different way to connect it to the electric motor that took out a lot of space. So, it did turn out not to be that bad of a background for an electrical and mechatronic company.”

One word: software
For Schaeffler, the process of evolving mechatronics effectively led to another important evolution, said Hemphill: development of software—as well as associated electronics-controls “skills”—vital for the new integrated business models the auto sector has come to demand. Is it now inescapable that it’s incumbent on fully-integrated suppliers to have software-development competency?

“It varies by what product we're talking about,” Hemphill explained. “For some of our actuators [and other modules], let’s say, there's a line drawn, usually, between the supplier and the OEM who does how much of the software.
“Some of our actuators, we just provide a simple interface where they can tell us, for example, a torque value and we go to that torque; and in some of them, we have much more ownership of the control strategy and so on. It just depends on the project, but we certainly have hundreds of people doing software now. I could look up an exact number, or what percent of our R&D is doing software; it's important, but it's still not the majority of our R&D force.”

Hemphill, himself holder of more than 100 issued or filed patents, said Schaeffler’s global R&D workforce currently numbers well more than 6000 persons. For major suppliers, he explained, today’s R&D environment is comprised of internally-driven research and response to customer requests for certain developments or innovations.

“I would say it's a combination of both,” he said. “We're certainly proud of our innovative capacity. And we also have developed over the years—because we make parts throughout the powertrain or even throughout the vehicle—we can take system-level perspective on things and sometimes arrive at some unique solutions.

“We'll often demonstrate those solutions. We have a number of demonstration vehicles all around the world that we've shown off; a couple of them we actually did in conjunction with OEMs. And then sometimes the OEM will come to us with an idea, and we'll take that on and execute it. So, it's a mix and we're pretty happy with our contribution there. But the challenges facing the industry go beyond any one OEM or multiple OEMs and one supplier. We're all thinking our brains out here.”

Proximity to tech
Schaeffler’s new Silicon Valley site in San Jose seems to be evidence of the company’s intent to keep pace—and not necessarily just with electrification. Although integrated wheel-hub motors are one of the company’s most-visible developments aimed at the coming twin wave of electrification and automation, Hemphill believes being in California’s tech nest is the right move to help identify and analyze new business models, Hemphill said.

“Out in the Valley there is someone thinking about everything. If you can pick out a couple [ideas] that end up being right and help them get going, you can really be part of something big. And the other side of that is there may be startups we find that have technology that we need.

“e-Mobility hybridization in electric vehicles is certainly a growing area. And probably the bulk of our projects are dedicated to those. But we do keep a certain piece of R&D forward-focused in free-thinking kind of research and advanced development just to make sure that we're trying to lead the curve as well as keeping up with it.

“We're pretty bullish on full-electric vehicles. We do have a U.S. forecast number that shows something in the mid-20s [percent market penetration], I think, by 2030 for pure electric vehicles and more than that globally. So, we're believers in electric propulsion systems. It is a lot easier to add lengths to an electric motor than to add a bank of cylinders to an engine!

“But even with those numbers, that means that 70-some percent of the vehicles will still have a combustion engine and therefore some form of transmission with it—even if it has an electric motor on board. It's almost a matter of degree where the combustion engine will be around for a long time. It may have an electric motor with it. We have to be prepared to engineer both of those and put them together into an intelligent system,” Hemphill asserted.

And it’s a similar outlook for autonomy, he added:

“One of the concepts we just showed in our technical symposium in Baden-Baden we call the eCorner. It has an integrated electric wheel motor; it’s specifically designed for autonomous—you could say robo-taxis or delivery vehicles. And we're just about to spin off a company to produce our Bio Hybrid [micro-mobility concept vehicle].

“There's every possibility out there. We basically just want to be close to the leading edge and have an earlier chance to assess where it might go and not go—and where to get involved.” Continue reading »
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