Frugal engineering

N Saravanan, Senior Vice President – Product
Development, Ashok Leyland Ltd.
Interview by: Bhushan Mhapralkar & Bhargav TS

Q. From a technology point of view, how would you describe the CV roadmap to the future?
A. One aspect is clean air and green vehicles. The second aspect is safety. A classic example when you speak about a green vehicle is a hybrid vehicle. The one that we have developed is a serial hybrid and uses ultra-capacitors instead of Lithium-ion batteries. Ultra-capacitors have the ability to charge and discharge faster. This technology would work well with frequent start-stop usage such as in a city bus. The diesel engine can be replaced with a CNG or a LNG engine. The ultra-capacitors help the engine to operate in the most efficient way. In various test installations we saw a significant improvement in the city cycle. About Euro VI, and we have a truck that we would want to help develop a technology not at European costs but the one that would make it the right product for the Indian market. To highlight safety, we could look at the school bus we have developed. It looks at small things like the lower height first step for easy and safe ingress of pupils. Meeting roll over is not mandatory for a school bus. School bus accidents are mostly caused by a blind spot. In our school bus, we have ensured that the driver has superior visibility on the co-driver side. We have put a collision warning system. We utilised technology to come up with an anti-bacterial seat fabric. Understanding customer perspective is important.

Q. At Ashok Leyland how do you look at frugal engineering?
A. By frugal engineering, most think of it as cheap. I look at frugal engineering as amalgamating more value to the customer than the cost. A good example is, when we developed the school bus we decided to give it a lower step height. To me it means good frugal engineering. Even the seats of the school bus could be a good example. They look nice and are done in a simple manner. They are made without wasting material and contain anti-bacterial fabric. I look at it as as good frugal engineering example. In every bus or truck it is not about one big frugal engineering but small bits – a lot of small ideas that define frugal engineering. It is not about doing it cheap, but about doing it better. The SCR system on the Euro 6 truck is from our sister company Albonair, which already supplies parts and systems to others. We focused on how the system could be more robust, and offer the right feature set. The right dosing system for India rather than offering what is being widely supplied. Such frugal engineering would be about cutting the cost of the entire system. The antibacterial application in the school bus is more of innovation than frugal engineering, but hints at frugal engineering.

“I look at frugal engineering as amalgamating more value to the customer than the cost.”

Q. As a bus market leader, what new technologies do you think will play out in buses?
A. With so much emphasis on pollution, and on smart cities, I see intra-city buses moving towards partia zero emissions or zero emissions. I see a move towards hybrid and electric buses. Demand for diesel vehicles will continue to be there as the move up to BS VI takes place. Everyone is jumping on the electric hybrid bandwagon because of the FAME outlay. There are other technologies that are promising too. Technologies like hydraulic hybrid where hydraulics is used to store the energy. It may not be subsidised, but is relatively cheaper. With the need for hybridelectrics going up, we will see innovation playing a part. Efforts will be made to get the cost down in terms of process technologies and localisation. There are other hybrid technologies to look at like the flywheel hybrid technology. A high-speed flywheel stores energy. Multiple things are going on. Once volumes build up, many technologies will come into play.

Q. What role could India play in the area of new technologies?
A. Look at hybrid technologies, and it is difficult to say what is Indian and what is not. Lot of work is collaborative. For example, if I had to buy Lithium-ion batteries, I would look at China. Nobody makes cells in India, they make it in China. They are a mass produced commodity. Innovation comes in such that how do I make these cells operate in the most efficient manner. The key therefore lies in the battery management system. It is my bigger value addition. As the demand increases a lot of IPR will be seen to be controlled by the Indian OEMs. We may buy a motor from UK, the motor controls are with us. The way the motor works, is controlled and the way it links with the engine makes a bigger IPR than the motor. A lot is already happening in India.

Q. Back to buses, and what technologies do you see coming into the inter-city segment?
A. This market will continue to grow steadily. We are also looking at entering this market in the near future. Its a tough market, but in the next twelve to eighteen months you will see us there.

Q. How has the response been to the Neptune engine?
A. We launched the six-cylinder Neptune engine with 360 hp. The market did not move towards higher powered engines. We are therefore supplying this engine to some of our defence vehicles and marine applications. By the time the market moves to BS VI, a segment of the market will move towards higher horsepower motors. Work will start on Neptune N6 for Euro 6 compliant vehicles. The N4 version will be seen on tractors and tippers in the next six to eight months.

Q. What challenges do you foresee as the industry moves to BS VI?
A. There will be significant challenges. When you look at reduction required from the NOx reduction perspective, which is 1/8th of what it is now, and from the particulate matter perspective, which would be a 50 per cent reduction, the challenges are significant. The output of the tail pipe will be cleaner than the input. If Delhi runs these CVs, the air will be purified; that is the level of purification required. BS VI will also spring significant challenges in terms of service. The way the customer uses the vehicle, the way the engine behaves over time, and the way the aggregates work. Challenge is not just technology, it is also about validation. For validation, we need fuel by 2018 if the market were to move up to BS VI by 2020. The validation run will have to be for at least a million kilometers if not for 10 million kilometers.

Q. With product lifecycle shrinking, how are companies like Ashok Leyland tackling the challenge?
A. What used be typically a waterfall product development cycle due to concept design; due to detailed design, mockup followed by some sort of production schedule, is today about doing it in less time. The investment in Dassault Systemes platform was done to do a lot of it virtually. To do digital modelling and cascading through to production. Suppliers are also involved. Lot of things are going virtual – virtual modelling and virtual validation for example. Also concurrent engineering, internally as well as externally. All these (processes) help to do things faster.

Q. How much of your engineering efforts would be diverted towards hybrid from IC engines?
A. The market is going to be 99 per cent diesel engine oriented. And, even though its one per cent (hybrid), we are spending a lot of effort towards hybrid and other technologies. The effort that goes for this one per cent is 30 per cent. We are putting such an effort is because we believe a significant volume coming from these technologies (hybrid, electric, etc.) in the future.

Q. Does the defence part of the business make for a highly innovative effort?
A. We are involved in the vehicles. Vehicles carrying troops, missiles or guns. We don’t see a big challenge in terms of technology. When we get into more advanced weapons system it is a different ball game. Right now, it is about vehicles, and that is our forte. Talking about vehicle applications, we may have some technology partnerships. In fact, there are cases where we have done something with the partner, and the partner is so happy that he is exporting it back.

Q. How quickly is the electronic content in vehicles rising?
A. I think the electronic content in vehicles is rapidly increasing. Look at the hybrid bus; it is working with an engine, motor, generator and a battery pack. How to make these things to communicate. Go to Euro VI, and the whole brain is there. Its getting more and more complex. Electronics is going to be essential to have a fine control over important functions; to control emission levels. In hybrid vehicles, electronics play an important role in imparting seamless switching over functions. We are seeing rising emphasis on telematics, diagnostics and prognostics. Being able to say what fail mode is coming up. Electronics may be a silent thing in the background, it will however play a critical role. In the Euro VI mode, the engines will be electronic. Presence of telematics and diagnostics will go up. At the inline pump level of BS III, the electronic content may be zero. Over environmental conditions, the challenges with rising electronics will be to make the technician understand; to make the customer understand. Any failure cannot be seen but will make the vehicle fail. We are starting a training process for our dealers starting with the BS IV itself.

Everyone is jumping on the electric hybrid bandwagon because of the FAME outlay. There are other technologies that are promising too.