Driving Electrified Powertrain Systems Design
Drive System Design punches far beyond its weight class in meeting customer needs for electrified powertrain systems engineering services.
The risks that come with electrification leave OEMs and Tier 1s little room for miscalculation in their product planning and development. The costliest mistakes loom largest in the powertrain space where hardware, software and energy-storage technologies are fast evolving, explains Jon Brentnall, president of Drive System Design (DSD), the North American arm of U.K.-based powertrain engineering consultancy.
“There’s an awful lot of learning going on within the automakers and suppliers,” Brentnall told SAE Media in an interview at DSD’s suburban Detroit tech center. “They’re having to pivot their business models and quickly become proficient at designing and industrializing electric machines integrated into gearboxes with an integrated power electronics system. They’re often competing for the same engineering talent. And initially, many of them are going ‘vertical’ [developing core technologies in house and owning the IP, rather than outsourcing] which I think is the right thing to do.”
Even for incumbent automakers and suppliers, the learnings in this uncertain and dynamic space are huge. And DSD’s business is growing steadily as a result. Founded in the U.K. by engineers who had built their experience at the large, better-known engineering-services firms, DSD has specialized in advanced powertrain technologies since the company’s 2007 launch.
“A lot of customers come to us for help in getting the system-level attributes right,” Brentnall said. “Thermal management is a big area. And NVH is huge.” He noted that a large German OEM came to DSD specifically for help in solving a difficult NVH problem in an EV. DSD devised a process that led to a solution, delighted the customer, and was then refined over time. “We help the Tier 1s establish a ‘line of sight,’ to get a leg up on the things that keep them up at night: Speed of development, reducing risk during development, and the learnings of integrating electrified systems into gearboxes and axles,” Brentnall explained.
A fresh customer focus
Being relatively small within the established engineering-services universe gives DSD an agility and operating speed that allows it “to stay one to two percent in front of its OEM and Tier 1 customers,” Brentnall claimed. R&D “is always targeted, based on our collaborative customer needs.” In terms of revenue, about 75% of the U.K. organization’s business is automotive (mostly global passenger car) focused, while DSD North America’s business currently is split 50% commercial truck and about 25% automotive. Defense-related projects are growing steadily, Brentnall said, adding that commercial vehicles are a main growth path.
The notion of setting up DSD came from its founders, including Brentnall, believing they can serve industry customers and develop their engineers “a bit differently and better than we all saw it done at ‘the big guys,’” he said. Specializing in powertrain and electrification, rather than being multi-disciplined (i.e., offering body-in-white development) has helped establish and grow the company. “We don’t have a wind tunnel,” Brentnall said with a laugh.
In terms of how DSD serves customers, adhering to budget is paramount, Brentnall asserted, and that helps build the trust that creates long-term relationships. “Our goal is to get our counterparts at customers promoted,” Brentnall said. “Whatever pains they bring us, we fix them. And we adhere strictly to budgets. Customers remember you for that and so the next time they encounter problems, they’re going to call you back. That’s how we roll.”
He recalled that in a previous consulting experience, the organization was in perpetual search for customers, often because budgets weren’t protected, and the clients were subjected to a constant churn of staff. “Many of the customers we’ve had since 2007 are still with us; we just built on them,” noted Ben Chiswick, director of engineering business development. He and Brentnall said overheads are kept low and each year since its founding, DSD has reinvested 100% of profits back into the company.
“What our customers see is a little, agile company that offers the same level of software and cutting-edge tools as the big guys,” he said. We have world-class test facilities, albeit on a smaller scale, all for electrified powertrain development.
The ePOP tool school
Traditionally OEMs engaged the industry’s engineering consultancies when a program fell behind in timing, or planners misjudged resource requirements, or they encountered other hurdles. Electrification is causing both startups and incumbent makers to engage with DSD ever earlier in their development programs. Some customers come with more direction and specific requirements. Others have less focus.
For both, DSD offers its proprietary system-level product planning tool called ePOP – the Electrified Powertrain Optimization Process. The ePOP tool helps product developers understand how to meet program and customer requirements within multiple parameters such as battery size and performance, for example. From that tool, DSD engineers work with them in establishing subsystem requirements.
“It's part of our R&D investment,” Brentnall explained. “Tier 1s would come to us and ask, ‘What’s the most efficient transmission, a parallel-axis gearset or a planetary?’ But while they’re just looking at the gearbox, their customer is concerned about the cost of the battery! They should instead be looking at system-integration synergies. They should be weighing motor topologies -- axial flux vs. radial flux? Permanent magnet machine vs. induction? Or, in the inverter, gallium nitride vs. silicon carbine?”
As a full-factorial tool, the e-POP produces efficiency maps of all the elements in the powertrain. It provides “thousands of powertrain scenarios all running against the vehicle drive cycle and produces architecture solutions based on them,” according to Brentnall.
e-POP is a significant time saver for engineers and planners, but it also benefits makers of e-motors and electrified drive modules who sell to Tier 1s and OEMs. “Without an effective tool, how are those companies going to prove to their customers that their electric machine could be part of a system that can help reduce cost of the whole vehicle?” Brentnall asked rhetorically. “With ePOP, they can put their machine into the tool and compare it with the competition. Because if they don’t do it, their customer will.”