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Mercedes' virtual reliance: the centerpiece of Mercedes' design strategy isn't real. It's virtual.

"Virtual reality is the backbone of engineering for us," says Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, vice president of development for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, while standing within the virtual reality (VR) center at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center in Sindelfingen, Germany, where all Mercedes-Benz vehicles are designed. The importance of VR at Mercedes can be assessed from the fact that the VR center opened a mere three years ago in April 2000, but was doubled in size a year later. Now it's a critical part of Mercedes' ambitious plan to make twice as many new models in half the time it did just a few years ago. (Ten new vehicles in the four year period ending with 2005 is the goal.)

Balasubramanian says the initial hurdle that VR had to overcome was convincing executives that were used to seeing and touching clay models that they could make design decisions based solely on 3-D projections. The development of the SLK, he explains, helped accomplish this in that the executives saw that their VR-based decisions were precisely reflected in physical models. Now every development program has a digital phase that simulates packaging, functionality, assembly and durability, and leads directly to the creation of a physical model. For major model changes, Balasubramanian says the development process involves three full cycles where VR simulations lead to the creation of prototypes, and information taken from the prototypes are used to refine the VR model. For minor changes or model variants only one or two cycles are required.

Although a great deal of public attention is on the simulation of entire vehicles, 70% of all VR simulation time at Sindelfingen is centered on component-level work: checking the relationship of parts of one another. Ergonomic studies also consume lots of time in the VR environments known as "CAVEs" (Cave Automatic Virtual Environments), where full-size, 3D images are projected on three walls. For example, to test driver ergonomics, special interior bucks are rolled into the CAVEs that employ force feedback to combine with the VR images and create realistic driving experiences. Also, 800 Sindelfingen workers, who have been classified by height and weight and indentified as test subjects, "drive" the bucks to help Mercedes ensure that future vehicles can be operated by a wide range of people. (Interestingly, Balasubramanian says that a vehicle interface similar to BMW's complicated iDrive was tested at the VR center, but the feedback indicated that a simpler system was needed.)

While reducing the time and costs associated with building physical prototypes are usually cited as the chief reasons Sot the expanded use of VR in automotive development, Balasubramanian says that Mercedes is not participating in the race to shave as many months as possible ors of development schedules. He expects that even with the extensive use of VR the development of all-new vehicles will still take between 30 and 40 months. And though this time is significantly shorter than in the pre-VR era and is the key to Mercedes aggressive new model plan, speed is not the main goal. "We are trying to achieve high product maturity," he says, "We're not trying to be the fastest."

BETTER MOLD STEEL

As automotive designers pursue mare ambitious uses of plastics, the pressure is on mold tool makers to continually improve their products. Recognizing the need For higher performing fool steels, Bohler Uddeholm [Rolling Meadows, IL) has developed a new premium grade stainless tool steel called Stavax Supreme, that if says solves many of the current problems of mold tool steels. Top on the list is greater corrosion resistance. Bohler Uddeholm's technical manager, James Kaszynski, points out that molders can experience a lot or down time because of corrosion-related maintenance like surface re-polishing and coaling channel re-drilling. Corrosion also causes higher reject rates, especially for molders of high-quality transparent parts like automotive lenses. He says Stavax Supreme is far more corrosion resistant than current mold steels which confers many benefits: lower mold maintenance costs, elimination of humidity protection, and better heat transfer characteristics and cooling efficiency for more consistent cycle times. Kaszynski says that the steel is also crack resistant, has good ductility and toughness and excellent through-hardening properties. Bohler Uddeholm is targeting second tier lighting suppliers and currently has 12 trials underway in North America and 10 in Europe.--KEW

COST VS. TECHONOLGY

The near-constant talk in the industry about lowering costs and, by association, using China as a supply base has a number of suppliers in high dudgeon, and suggesting it could put a chill on technical innovation. However, Delphi's vice chairman and chief technology officer, Don Runkle, doesn't quite see it that way.

"Each OEM has a different perspective in terms of cost and innovation," he said, adding, "You can't say that all OEMs are the same," according to Runkle, "because they each have a distinct business model that follow. Still," he says in a manner that puts an emphatic close to the cost question, "automakers often get the suppliers they deserve."

Not wanting to be at the lower end of the food chain, Delphi has kept R&D spending high and is increasing the efficiency of its spending through the Lisa of math-based solutions. Diesel technology is grabbing about 10% of the budget. "Diesel is a capital-intensive technology," says Runkle, "and one that demands you are very efficient with your money." Nevertheless, he feels it's likely that diesel will be able to meet present and proposed emission regulations through a combination of improved combustion chamber design, more efficient engine management and fuel injection strategies, and after-treatment devices like particulate traps. Similar efforts, he insists, will improve the emissions performance of gasoline engines, too. "As an industry, we'll solve the remaining emissions problems for both engines through adoption of things like on-board hydrogen reformation and improved injectors," he says. However, this will bring an increase in powertrain cost at a time automakers are spending billions of dollars in order to increase fuel economy. Not surprisingly, Runkle sees opportunities for Delphi here as well.

Fuel economy, Runkle insists, will increase through the "electrification" of today's belt-driven accessories (power steering, air conditioning, stc.), cylinder deactivation, and more flexible cam phasing systems. "Done properly," he says, "you can improve engine performance and packaging, and help keep the size and weight of the vehicle in check. But that demands the early integration of the supplier into the product development process." In part, this will happen because of the expected increase in integrated chassis electronic systems. "We will see improvements equivalent to what the industry saw in the 1980s when we put computers on engines and got power, economy and lower emissions," Runkle says. "There's a lot of high-speed power going into the chassis that must be coordinated." And no doubt only "deserving" OEMs and suppliers will get there first.-CAS

IMPROVING PLASTIC

A new series oF specialty elastomars has been launched by ExxonMobil Chemical. These materials, under the trade name "Vistamaxx," are said to have improved elasticity, softness, adhesion, strength, and durability, ease of processing, and compatibility with a variety of polymers. Which is to say that applications can include both inferior (e.g., in Fabrics) and exterior (e,g., toughening TPOs For fascias) applications in automotive. (Check out www.vistamaxxelastomers.com For additional information).

FEELING GASSY

Other than separating hydrogen molecules from compounds like water, one of the biggest obstacles to using hydrogen as a Fuel is storage. The current leaders are high-pressure gas storage or cryogenic storage as a liquid. Both require specialized handling, and are not without risk. Now, a joint venture between Chevron-Texaco (San Ramon, CA) and ECO Ovonics (Rochester Hills, MI) says it has solved the problem by storing hydrogen in solid Form.

The tank uses a powdered metal alloy to absorb and store hydrogen in a significantly lower (1,500 psi) pressure environment than the 5,000-psi tanks currently in use, off he 10,000 psi tanks on the horizon. When the hydrogen gas comes into contact with the surface of the metal hydride alloy, if separates into atomic hydrogen (H, not [H.sub.2]), and bonds with the alloy. Its pressure increases until it reaches a plateau. Once the entire volume of the storage material is occupied, the hydrogen pressure in the gas again increases. As the hydrogen is absorbed, heat is released. And the refueling system shown by the Texaco Ovonics Hydrogen Systems joint venture pumps wafer around the tank to encourage the storage process. When heat is absorbed by the metal hydrides, through a branch off the heater circuit, for example-hydrogen is released.

Currently, if takes 10 minutes to pump 3.8 kg of hydrogen into a car-sized tank. With improved heat exchangers and a single probe pump (the prototype handle has a probe For the hydrogen and separate probes For incoming and outgoing cooling water), this time should drop below five minutes. And in an efficient gasoline hybrid vehicle like Toyota's Prius, this should give a range of about 150 miles at a cost approaching $3 per kg. Plus, the same storage tanks can be used whether fueling a fuel cell vehicle or one with an internal combustion engine.

Weight is still a concern, however. To store that 3.0 kg ]of hydrogen requires a metal hydride tank weighing nearly 420 lb. However, ECD Ovonics personnel say the storage can be spread among a number of tanks joined together and located along the floor of the vehicle in order to keep the renter or gravity low. Refueling stations would use a similar tank layout stacked one atop another, as would tanker trucks. Currently, the tanks hold a volume of 1.6% hydrogen by weight.--CAS

FAST VISION SENSOR

Inspecting parts on the assembly line just got a little faster. Omron Electronics LLC (Schaumburg, IL) Is Introducing its new F210 high-speed vision sensor that uses advanced measurement algorithms and a 1.4-millisecond image acquisition to reduce measurement cycle time down to as low as 3 milliseconds. It uses new edge code technology to precisely ascertain the position and orientation of parts on the line and detect defects. And a free matching algorithm allows operators to enhance defect identification by comparing user-taught models with live images. The unit also does Internal trending for statistical process control and tolerance monitoring and can be used with two cameras for multi-angle and wide field of view inspections.

LISTEN UP

"Within five years, information systems will be the only reall diFferentiation between vehicles." that outrageous prediction comes from Dr. Peter Roessqer, of Harman/Becker Automotive Systems Gmbh (Fihlerstandt, Germany), a firm that, not coincidentally, produces these systems [it contributed to the much maligned BMW iDrive], as wells as straight up high-end audio system. Roessger bases his sweeping assertion Oil till? notion that because so many vehicle manufacturers are implementing electronic systems for handling, control, and engine management, there will be a certain sameness of driving experience (which, presumably, his colleagues at BMW might take exception to), if the driving experience is homogenous, then customers will base their vehicle buying decision on the quality and user-friendliness of the human-machine interface of the infotainment system well restrain ourselves from making an iDrive comment at this point).

On a less contentious subject, Roessger, who is involved with both human factors and business development at the German company, says that within two to three years voice recognition systems for infortainment interface will have an adequate working vocabulary and it will take about 10 years before there will be systems that will be able to handle commands made in a natural conversational mode. - KEW

VOLV0'S SMALL CAR PLANS IN FOCUS

The 2004 Volvo 540 sedan is the first vehicle to be built off Ford's (1 small car platform. Volvo engineers oversaw development of the architecture, making certain if had the equipment necessary to compete in the entry-level portion of the premium sector, while hitting strict cost targets. Both Ford (European Focus) and Mazda (the Mazda3) will introduce their own El-based cars by the 2006 model year. (The U.S. Focus remains on its current platform when if receives a facelift in 2005.)

The 540 (a V50 "premium activity wagon" will replace the current V40 wagon in the 2005 model year) utilizes tour grades of high-tensile steel in the front structure, and side beams that form a three-way attachment between the leading edge of the A-pillar and the base of the B-pillar. This attachment system is repeated in the rear doors, as wail.

The base engine is a normally aspirated 170-hp inline five cylinder thai" drives the front wheels. Moving up to the T5 adds high-pressure turbocharging, 50 hp, a dose-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, and the option of electronically controlled all-wheel-drive. The 2004 540 will be built in Volvo car's Ghent, Belgium, plant. A total of $387 million was spent to renovate the facility, which also built Mitsubishi's Carisma sedan under a joint venture agreement.--CAS

NEW COLOR CAMERA: FAST, SIMPLE, ECONOMICAL

A new approach to dealing with color machine vision challenges is being deployed by DVT Corp. (Atlanta. GA) that is said to be superior to conventional, I spectrometers or spectrophotometers. While those devices are typically capable of measuring the optical spectrum for a specified surface area at one point, thereby necessitating movement should there be a need to measure the spectrum at various locations on the object under view, according to Dr. Ali Zadeh, senior RED engineer at DVT, the "SpectroCam is an instrument capable of simultaneously measuring the optical spectrum components and the spatial location of an object surface." The system consists of a lens, imaging spectrograph, gray-scale smart camera, and an LED line light. No frame-grabber or PC for data analysis is necessary. The camera has the necessary firmware to do the task. The SpectroCam is said to be fast and to provide better spatial resolution and simultaneous measurement across a large number of points compared with point color spectrophometers. Zadeh adds, "In comparison to ROB color cameras, SpectroCam provides better color resolution, full compensation for light source intensity and color temperature changes, and full spectral information with flexible wavelength range selection by firmware."
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Title Annotation:WIP
Author:Whitfield, Kermit
Publication:Automotive Design & Production
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:2345
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