(GKN\Dean Smith)

As automotive climates shift, GKN ramps up its winter testing

In an industry jolted by demand for electrified systems integration, the proof and tuning opportunities of the winter test continue to expand.

As the influx of electrification continues to roil the industry, seamlessly integrating the hardware and wealth of software it brings with it creates a far broader engineering challenge. Tier-1 companies that traditionally supplied “parts” are rapidly transitioning from a component-level mindset to system-level projects that include exponential investments in programming and control algorithms. Meshing innovative electrified propulsion systems while still meeting diverse and performance-hungry OEM integration criteria is making winter testing more crucial than ever.

Tier-1 driveline and AWD specialist GKN Automotive knows this better than most, and has been investing heavily in its winter testing facilities near Arjeplog, Sweden. The town is only an hour’s drive from the Arctic Circle, but this village in Sweden’s northernmost Lappland province can see its population increase more than 10-fold during the northern hemisphere’s annual December-to-March winter-testing window. Billing itself as the “Ice Driving Capital of the World”, the region is home to sprawling reindeer herds and multiple winter-test facilities and programs, from outfits including Land Rover, Continental, Pirelli, Bosch and Porsche.

A generation of winter testing
GKN has been in the area for decades, and two years ago doubled its already sizable footprint at the Colmis Proving Ground just south of Arjeplog. “We’ve been here 30 years, and were probably one of the first ones up here doing this,” explained Hannes Prenn, COO for GKN Automotive’s ePowertrain division. “We noticed quite early that this is key for our development and capabilities to build fun-to-drive cars, a requirement our OEMs set. Also, we need to test and tune our cars in different circumstances and environments, in order that they behave safely and properly when they go out in public.”

The GKN compound at Colmis provides multiple bays of fully outfitted, climate-controlled garages, along with conference capabilities and display and meeting spaces typical for any industrial park. “Thirty years ago we had a very small garage, the cars were all outside and we had big problems to get them to run again, so it's changed quite a lot,” Prenn offered. “This is really the heart of our engineering company, because this is where we can see how our products really work and behave in very difficult circumstances.”

“We are here basically from the beginning of January to mid-March. Out of those nine weeks, basically two weeks are for customers,” Prenn said. “We do a lot of development work, but two weeks are really for customers to come and to showcase what we have. When they come here, it's their car and they drive it, which is the big wow effect. They will feel a big difference, which is what they expect.”

The clearly defined testing window has other development advantages according to Ray Kuczera, GKN’s VP of driveline engineering. “We have a short window of when we can test certain products. It forces us to get everything done in a certain period of time. Otherwise, as engineers we tend to tinker and drag out the process, and this puts us on a very strong cadence.”

From parts to system integration
As vehicle architectures and control systems get ever more tightly networked, nearly every supplier has seen the shift from providing a specific component to being responsible for complete subsystems. This is a paradigm shift for suppliers and brings an entirely new process to the integration role.

“We started with components, and basically would give them to the OEMs and they’d integrate them in their cars,” Prenn said. “We're at the level now where we do this all ourselves, so we’re basically a full-system supplier. We’re not only giving them the hardware, but also the software. The integration is talking to the car itself, to the different sensors in order to make it work as a whole.”

“I'm always amazed how much is going into one unit. If we look at a fully integrated eAxle, it's got the motor integrated into the transmission with the inverter integrated into it, as well as the common cooling circuit,” said Kuczera. “There's so many things together now that used to be separate, and that shows the power of integration. Not just bringing the bucket of parts to the party, but bringing in engineering expertise to put it all together the right way.”

Electrification doesn’t alter physics
Like most engineering firms, GKN has been adapting to the shift in electrification by focusing on leveraging its in-house expertise. “The good thing is that on this way from the mechanical to the electrical, all the changes within the company, having more electronic software engineers and mechanical engineers, this is all supported by our strategy of having building blocks,” explained Rainer Link, engineering manager of GKN’s ePowertrain division.

“If you have a disconnect system, a park-lock, a gearbox that's developed – and of course we know this from all-wheel drive – these are all experiences and products that we can put together for this new application,” Link said. “And then in addition of course we have the electric motor and the inverter to build a fully integrated system, and we have them available now.”

“It's a kind of evolution, but probably more of a revolution what we are going through right now. The electrical piece is different but the driving behavior, the dynamics, are not,” Prenn said. “So many of our peers are starting from scratch being electrical experts, but not having a background like we have on mechanical integration. It's not only about an [electric motor]. It's a gearbox around it, and that's basically the key component for making it drive properly and its NVH – making it quiet.”

“It's still a drivetrain at the end of the day which you need to integrate in the car,” Prenn stated. “And the vehicle dynamics of a car itself – the physics – are not changing. That's where our expertise lies and where we can use all our know how on eDrive systems.”

Software key differentiator
The greatest change in system integration, be it in mechanical or electrical propulsion, has been in software. “You've got millions of lines of code to write today,” noted Kuczera. “Even a few years ago it was probably 10,000 lines, and it just keeps ballooning further as we see more safety requirements and more refinement in the vehicle.”

“They're two sides of the same coin,” Kuczera said of the teamwork between software and vehicle-controls engineers. “Someone's writing the code that's making the vehicle perform a certain way, where the other person's telling the person how it needs to perform, so it's a kind of virtuous circle. It's so much faster today than it used to be. The loop can be closed. You can go out there, feel something you don't like, come back, make an adjustment, and go back out again.”

“They're together in the car, they have all the measurement systems, they have all the computers, and they're collecting data like crazy,” Link added. “And then they're sitting back in the office working with the data, test the software, go back on the ice, test it again. That's the cycle of the work.”

“You can have the exact same drivetrain, but different customers want to have it tuned differently. That's why you test out on the ice, where you go out and really see how the car behaves in borderline conditions where we have understeer, oversteer,” Prenn said. “With a very similar mechanical system you can achieve very different results on the vehicle dynamics. And that's what we're working on and why we work very closely with our OEMs.”

A passion for performance
As electrification seeps into every portion of the modern automotive driveline – leveraging the new systems and controls required to integrate the technology – the low-mu world of winter testing becomes its own engineering wonderland. Enthusiasm for what’s next (and perhaps the occasional opposite-lock drift..) is required, particularly in bitter winter months as this is a remote locale even for Europe-based engineers.

“Our engineers are up here for several weeks away from their families,” Prenn explained. “But they are really very motivated and passionate to be here, and to develop the next level and next generation of products. This is not only a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must-have’ in my view, in order to call yourself a professional Tier-1 supplier.”

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