We Focus On Small Improvements, Not Breakthrough Technology

Technology development is always a great business plan, regardless of the industry. In the automotive context Hella is one such company, which despite the downturn is focusing strongly on future products to expand its business. As the company treads down the path of transiting from a component supplier to a system provider, we were given a peek into the company’s technical future by Dr Naveen Gautam, Managing Director, Hella India Automotive Pvt Ltd.

An expert in body electronics development and vehicle E/E architecture design, Dr Naveen Gautam’s experience spans over 25 years. He was responsible for establishing Hella electronics development center at Pune, which caters to the R&D needs of Hella for developing local and global products. His previous assignments include important positions in former DaimlerChrysler in E/E development and vehicle architecture groups in Auburn Hills, USA, and in Stuttgart, Germany. Dr Gautam is a Board Member at Hella India Automotive Pvt Ltd and a founding trusty and chairperson of the NGO “BalSwavlamban Trust”, working for the uplift of underprivileged children. He is a mechanical engineering graduate with manufacturing science MTech from IIT Kanpur. He also acquired his PhD. in lean product development from Wayne State University Detroit, USA. He also held a faculty position at Rajasthan Technical University (Kota, India) and Adjunct faculty at Wayne State University, USA in department of Industrial Engineering.

 

ATR _ Hella India Automotive is transitioning from a component manufacturer to system supplier, especially in the field of electronics. How is this transition taking place?

Dr Naveen Gautam _ Value additions mostly happen at the interface level and functionality is realised when various pieces work together. OEMs these days go for quick launches, primarily due to the blockbuster effect of a new vehicle, which has been witnessed recently for some new models. This puts tremendous pressure on the resources. If this responsibility is on their side, it will drain their resources. In this case, if a Tier I supplier like us presents a solution in the form of system supply and integration, things become easier for the OEMs. In case of us supplying a validated and tested system, the OEM doesn’t need to look after the integration of various components to ensure the effectiveness of a system. By doing this, we’re offering more value to the customer, allowing them to focus their time and resources on activities such as styling and marketing, etc.

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Does this approach inspire you to diversify into other components, which may compliment a given system?

Certainly, a system is a solution in itself, while a part is just a piece of the puzzle. This allows us to go beyond the OEM and think of the end user, be it the driver, passengers or the pedestrians. The idea hence is to create a solution around the components one supplies.

How would you rate the acceptance of high-end electronics in the Indian market?

The market is gradually maturing as the middle-class continues to grow and wants more features. On the comfort side, the acceptance rate is pretty high since people can experience it. At the same time the awareness on safety isn’t much. People find it hard to find a direct relevance and since safety doesn’t come across as a bragging feature, the take rate is slow in the middle and upper-middle class. In the premium segment though, the safety awareness and acceptance is higher and will flow down in the form of awareness.

Another aspect is energy management in the vehicle, wherein technologies impacting short-term running costs are accepted well. However, for anything beyond the personal cost and related to the environment still lacks awareness in the Indian market. Hence, the environmental responsibility is still with the OEM and system supplier; and not the end customer. Sensitivity towards the environment in absence of direct economic benefits is still within a very small circle of intellectuals. This translates into a good potential for electronic systems related to fuel-efficiency.

Have you undertaken any customised electronics for the Indian market?

One example is that of mood lighting, which will be launched soon. The product is an intensive value addition but not much of a cost addition, in line with the needs of the Indian market. This technology allows the user to configure the ambient lighting in his vehicle using a smartphone or tablet, including decisions on the various patterns and colours for lighting inside the car. One can also customise it to the extent of setting an interior lighting colour for a particular caller. The system uses Bluetooth communication to accept the inputs from users. This RGB-based LED lighting offers an infinite colour choice. This product has been developed specifically for India, since people here or in a market like China, would be more emotionally attached to such a colour changing feature.

In addition, we’re also looking at offering more value by de-contenting a system without compromising quality. For example, a particular sensor made to work in snowy conditions is a brilliant addition somewhere else. However, if those requirements are not present here, removal of that system and subsequent reduction of cost is a value addition. So this cost-engineering is something we’re focusing on in the Indian context.

What kind of challenges do you face in terms of lightweighting, given the price-sensitivity and high-material cost in India?

India is not a country where we traditionally do a lot of research on the materials front. Fundamental research is lagging because nobody is ready to chip-in. The government does its bit, but sometimes there are no results. India leapfrogging and going ahead of others in the area of materials doesn’t seem to be on the near horizon.

Talking of lightweighting, the electronic components do not weigh much and we’re reducing further. The capacitors and resistors, which used to be big in the past, are constantly being downsized, reducing weight as well. What we’re additionally doing is feature integration, wherein we provide more features in a system. An example is the light sensor, which only did what its name suggests. We added the rain sensor and later combined the humidity sensor, yet made it smaller than earlier. Then we added a solar sensor and made it even smaller. We’re adding features but still reducing their size and weight.

One also needs to look at the energy consumption of these sensors. Integrating them means the energy is now centralised, so we have a single microprocessor, single input, one-link channel and the communication too is streamlined through one and not various wires, leading to lower energy consumption as well as lower wiring cost. If the power consumption goes down, the battery size too can be reduced, lowering the weight even further. This may be a small margin but such small improvements made in multiple areas, is what ultimately leads to downsizing as seen on engines.

We aren’t talking of a revolutionary technology here, but are looking for small and meaningful improvements. Such integration will also offer OEMs with the benefit of complexity reduction. The future of electronics will be less complex because beyond a certain level, complexity becomes unmanageable and complexity for masses doesn’t work. Hence if one intends to offer similar levels of features and convenience, it calls in for consolidation of complexity for the user as well as the person repairing it.

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We’ve also come to know about a fuel control module you have in your portfolio. Is that a plug-and-play module?

It’s a plug-and-play device with the possibility to carry out some calibration as per the requirement. Normally, a fuel pump sends the fuel to the engine through a low-pressure line. In case of pumping more fuel than required, there’s a return line to bring that extra fuel back to the tank. This system starts working not when the engine is switched on but the moment the ignition is turned on. In such a condition, the fuel is being pumped and then being brought back, leading to drainage of energy. So we converted this system into an on demand type unit.

The mechanism is quite simple. Normally, there’s a pressure sensor in the line and when the pressure is adequate the pump stops and when the pressure falls, the pump comes into play. This starting and stopping is a very intermittent process, so instead of that we did a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation)-based control of the pump. This means the average voltage available on the pump will be adjusted based on the demand. Hence, if the pressure increases, the PWM level goes down and vice-versa. In this range, the system is continuously adjusting the voltage on the pump and accordingly managing the fuel supply. This eliminates the need for a return line, leading to lower weight and cost.

This system has already been deployed by General Motors and they’ve claimed improvement of up to two per cent. Every small percentage makes a difference, and putting such multiple devices would automatically lead to significant fuel-saving and hence should be the focus rather than looking at a major breakthrough technology. Also, being independent of the engine control, it’s a completely plug-and-play device. The system is only dependent on the pressure in the line so a pressure sensor along with the device constitutes the system. A wire connected to the motor completes the system so that the motor no longer gets its feed from the battery.

Has this solution been developed in India?

The system wasn’t developed in India but has been further customised according to local needs. We’re still not in the series production stage for this system in India but we’re in the final acquisition stage. Presently, none of the Indian OEMs have rolled out this solution. We are waiting for a go ahead from the OEMs.

What role will your R&D centres play in the business strategy ahead?

We have three centres – one in Gurgaon for horns, one in Pune for electronics and one in Chennai for lighting. Chennai caters almost completely to global customers. Presently, about half of the work done in the Pune centre is for India, while the rest is for global business. In Pune, we’ve recently created an innovation cell, which will exclusively cater to Indian needs. The people here are trying to understand the needs of the Indian consumers & OEMs and building products accordingly.

Development of technologies by this innovation cell, including mood lighting, will give rise to reverse innovation. Products developed in India might make their way to matured markets, even if not in the same configuration. This is feature innovation, but we we’re also working on cost-innovation. Since we’ve already optimised systems to suit Indian cost requirements and de-contented them accordingly, we can now put that content back in for the mature markets, and owing to lower costs due to development being carried out in India, I see good demand for such systems in developed markets over the next 10 years or so.

 

Interview & Photo: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah, Arpit Mahendra