Seventy-odd km north-west of its mother plant in Gurgaon in Haryana, about 220 engineers from Maruti Suzuki India (MSIL) are engrossed in designing, developing and evaluating vehicles to ensure the leading carmaker delivers products that are durable, efficient and most importantly, safe. Once completed, this state-of-the-art R&D facility in Rohtak will be one of the most advanced R&D facilities in India and amongst the top facilities in Asia, claims the company. We were recently invited to the facility for a detailed understanding of how the centre functions. Here's what we learnt.
When Maruti Suzuki India was scouting for land to set-up its planned R&D centre in India, one of the foremost requirements was a piece of land that allowed the company to build a two km-long straight track. The 700 acre site MSIL found in Rohtak had the right ingredients required to develop a world-class R&D facility. Two years after the allotment of land, work at the facility commenced in June 2011.
The first phase of development at the Rohtak facility was completed in November 2015, while the second phase is scheduled to be completed by March 2019. An additional investment of Rs 1,900 cr has been lined-up, taking the total investment in the facility to Rs 3,800 cr. By then, 10-12 new facilities will be added to the existing infrastructure, which currently has a full-fledged vehicle testing lab, a crash lab, 31 types of test tracks, spanned over 31 km of tracks in overall length.
By 2019, when the centre becomes fully operational, MSIL is looking at adding labs to test transmissions, engines, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and emissions, among others.
Spread over a 600-acre campus, Maruti is looking at making this integrated R&D centre an integral tool in its objective of becoming an end-to-end manufacturer, thus reducing dependence on its parent company, Suzuki Motor Corporation. CV Raman, Executive Director (Engineering), MSIL said the company is looking to develop the entire product development capability of product design and development to validation and testing. In the future, the Rohtak centre will also service Suzuki's global requirements, including Europe and Japan.
As an OEM, Maruti started product development in a phased manner around the early 2000s. The first known project was the Zen minor facelift in 2003, where the Indian team offered localisation and product support to SMC Japan. The Swift marked a significant move-up for MSIL, with 30 engineers involved in the co-design and development of the car. The third phase involved full body change, implemented on the Alto 800 in 2012. While the contribution of MSIL in product engineering increased significantly, all approvals continued to come from the headquarters.
In 2012, MSIL started work on its first global product development project, with responsibilities right from concept to SOP. The Vitara Brezza, with Raman as the first Indian chief engineer for any Suzuki product globally, was thus born in 2016 with a significant amount of engineering work done locally.
This has been possible through a systematic approach to upgrading skills of MSIL engineers over the last decade or so. Nearly 35 % of R&D engineers have been trained at Suzuki, Japan for up to two years.
While capabilities around product development continued to grow, the company also ensured safety took priority. Five of its products today – the S-Cross, Ciaz, Baleno, Ertiga and the recently-launched Ignis – already conform to the upcoming safety norms. The Brezza, incidentally, was the first vehicle in India to be certified for offset and side impact crashes.
The Vitara Brezza and Ignis were tested and evaluated at the crash labs and proving ground at Rohtak. At the time of its launch, Ignis was certified for offset, side impact and pedestrian safety norms, while the S-Cross, Ciaz, Baleno and Ertiga have been tested and certified by official homologation agencies for advanced safety regulations on offset, side impact and pedestrian safety, said the company. Each of these vehicles has undergone 35-40 tests during design and development over the last three to four years.
For the record, full frontal and offset crash tests will become mandatory for all new vehicles starting October 1, 2017, while for existing vehicles the deadline has been set for October 1, 2019. Similarly, for pedestrian protection, the mandatory deadline manufacturers would need to adhere to is October 2018 for new vehicles, and October 2020 for existing vehicles, (1).
Raman expects the others products from MSIL stable also to conform to the new safety regulations much ahead of the deadline. "Re-engineering of our products is a must to meet future safety regulations, and I expect about 75-80 % of our existing fleet to become compliant to new safety norms, about a year ahead of regulations becoming mandatory in the country," said Raman.
THE ROHTAK FACILITY
We asked Raman if the Rohtak facility is likely to become a strategic hub for SMC or a centre of excellence for any particular area of technical competence. While replying in the negative, Raman said MSIL and the Japanese parent will continue to work on new projects jointly. Having said that, the company is doing all it can to ensure the Rohtak facility becomes the country's most advanced R&D centre, and one of the finest in Asia. It said the Rohtak proving ground is at par with proving grounds of SMC, Japan.
Of the 31 tracks in the facility, 19 tracks are meant for endurance tests spread over 11.7 km. There are nine tracks for NVH & brakes testing measuring 3.7 km in length, and three high-speed test tracks spanning 13.4 km. One such high-speed track is 5.9 km-long and has a 35-degree banking track that allows tests to be conducted at high speeds of around 190 km/h. Special test facilities have also been set-up to simulate Indian driving conditions such as salt water road, muddy road, and pot holes.
The passive safety lab, housed over an area of 5,664 sq m, is home to a pedestrian lab, a dummy calibration lab, a soak room and a sled facility. The vehicle preparation room is accredited by global agencies such as TUV and AVI, as well as Indian certification agencies ARAI and iCAT.
Pedestrian tests in this lab are done to measure head (skull and neck) as well as leg impacts (femur, knee and tibia) in the case of a frontal collision. These tests are first evaluated in CAE, and then taken for physical tests, and engineers we spoke to confirmed they achieve about 90-95 % correlation between CAE and physical tests. Around 40-45 tests are conducted per car for head impacts, and 20-25 tests for legs. This is as per the injury criteria defined in Europe.
We witnessed a legform impact testing, conducted on an Ignis. In this test, the vehicle remains stationary, while the impactor – a Flexible Pedestrian Legform Impactor (Flex-PLI) in this case – moves and hits the stationary vehicle at a speed of 40 km/h. The Flex-PLI with 13 sensors simulates the flexible nature of the human bone, which in this case, are made of fibre glass. The impact is captured by high-speed cameras at anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 frames per second (fps). These are ably aided by flicker-free lights, data acquisition systems, speed trap and other calibration equipment.
The highlight, however, was the actual crash test MSIL demonstrated for the visiting media. This test was done under the notified crash standard AIS098, described as an offset deformable barrier frontal impact test. This is a 40 % offset test with driver's side bias. The car used for the demonstration was a brand new Ignis. In fact, a car once used for a crash test is rendered useless and is scrapped.
The test car, with two test dummies placed in the front seats, moved at a speed 56.44 km/h and crashed into a 90-tonne concrete block. It was found that the car had no fuel leakage, while all the doors opened and airbags deployed. Each dummy is fitted with 40 sensors, and has 89 data channels that record crash data for further analysis. So far, the Rohtak centre has carried out about 200 such tests, Raman said.
Of the five pillars of product design – durability, fuel efficiency, technology, safety and infotainment – safety, for sure, is the most critical. In a country that has the dubious distinction of the highest number of fatalities on roads, it is paramount that our vehicles are safe – both for the occupants as well as pedestrians. OEMs such as Maruti Suzuki are doing their bit, but it's equally important for consumers to understand the need to use seat belts, helmets and have quality driving training. That was the core message MSIL advocated during our daylong trip to Rohtak.
TEXT: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah
PHOTO: Maruti Suzuki India Limited