Group Design: Solution to Fuel Economy

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PHILADELPHIA – Group design, a holistic approach or a team effort – however its described, the key to achieving the next set of automotive fuel economy goals is working together across disciplines and companies, said several industry experts at a gathering here last week.

Theres one sure way to produce fuel efficiency gains as quickly as consumers and regulators are demanding them, said Peter Lee, principal engineer for tribology at the independent test lab Southwest Research Institute. We need to start doing things together, not the old-fashioned way, he urged attendees on May 2 at the George Arbocus Education Course, organized by the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers.

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Rather than carefully choosing engines, transmissions and other hardware while leaving the lubricant as an afterthought as they have in the past, automakers can see significant efficiency gains by inviting oil formulators and others into the vehicle design process as early as possible.

Southwest Research Institute has already seen this approach coming through its laboratories, Lee stated. People are working together toward the synergy of the problem. The oil company is working with the powertrain company to actually come up with things that have lower friction before you even put it in the engine.

For example, Lee noted two projects investigating piston ring liners to achieve superlubricity, in which friction is practically nonexistent. One project succeeded in reducing the coefficient of friction in the ring liner from 0.12 to 0.04. Thats a huge difference, Lee exclaimed. And while this dramatic difference only affects one part of the engine, he noted, that improvement will boost efficiency in the original equipment manufacturers next vehicle.

He also pointed to work the United States Navy is already conducting for engines the military branch will put into use two decades from now. Theyve got everybody who should be involved, involved: a materials expert, a lubricants expert, a tribologist, observed Lee. Theyve brought the package of people together to actually try and get this system to where it works with good robustness and good fuel economy.

Monica Beyer, North America product manager for driveline lubricants at Lubrizol, highlighted another reason that vehicles of the future will need a group approach to design: materials compatibility.

While electric vehicles dont use engine oils, they do need driveline lubricants. As original equipment manufacturers aim to lighten up their vehicles for better fuel economy, they are using plastic parts such as bearing cages and support structures.

The key difference here is, in the past, a lot of the original equipment manufacturers knew which materials were lube-compatible. What were finding now is that original equipment manufacturers will pick a plastic and not necessarily consider the lube, Beyer explained. Materials compatibility is important for any type of lubricant in a vehicle, she noted, not just driveline lubes. You really have to be upstream, step-in-step with oil marketer, additive company and original equipment manufacturer.

A group approach to automotive design can also produce significant performance gains, said Lake Speed Jr. of Driven Racing Oil, which is affiliated with NASCAR team Joe Gibbs Racing. Before Joe Gibbs Racing began working with Lubrizol in 2000, it had won 16 races but no championships, Speed told the group. In the eight years after the partnership began, the team won five championships and 84 races.

And it was because we took a holistic approach, emphasized Speed. We didnt just stop at the engine. A group including a physicist, a chemist, applied sciences professionals and a NASA failure analysist worked together to design a complete system.

Although the racing team had initially contacted the additive company because of cam shaft failures, they embraced the opportunity to rethink the engine, to think about coatings, to think about surface finish, Speed continued. The three big things that we found in that time period that changed the game were piston ring seal, the gains from changing the surface (metallurgy, finishes and coatings) and the oil.

It was all realized in working together; it was all three pieces put together that made the difference, he concluded.

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