Maruti Suzuki India (MSIL), the country's largest carmaker, has been at the forefront of new technology introduction in the market, the most recent being the introduction of an Automated Manual Transmission on the Celerio hatchback. We recently caught up with CV Raman, Executive Director - Engg. Research & Development, MSIL for a detailed understanding of the technology roadmap the company is undertaking in India to address the future demands and challenges.
CV Raman currently heads the Engineering and R&D functions at Maruti Suzuki India (MSIL) as its Executive Director (Engineering). A BE from the Delhi College of Engineering in mechanical engineering, Raman started his career in 1982 with Escorts (Yamaha) Ltd, where he worked for two years in the component and supplier development for Yamaha 350 cc & 100 cc motorcycles. In 1984, he moved to Maruti Udyog Limited as a member of the vendor development team, and went on to successfully lead various supplier development & procurement initiatives. In 2001, Raman shifted to engineering and was responsible for product development, vehicle testing, and homologation cost management. He has led several product development teams for new models at MSIL. He is also spearheading the setting-up of the MSIL's new R&D facilities at Rohtak, Haryana. Among any others, he is the Chairman of SIAM Committee on International Harmonization and is Chairman of SAE, Northern India section.
ATR _ Mr Raman, please talk to us about the technology evolution at Maruti, and how is the company preparing for the future challenges?
CV RAMAN _ We have had many technology firsts in the past 30 years, right from the introduction of our first 800 cc car. We introduced a monocoque body, thin steel sheets that were rigid and safe, lightweight features, good inbuilt AC and stereo systems, among many others. We have always focussed on showcasing productivity, quality and technology, not just to our domestic customers but also consumers in our export markets. We offered emission controls technologies on our export models in the early 90s and set-up an emission lab in 1993. That was a great learning for us, and we were prepared when India introduced emissions norms in 2000. Powertrain technologies also started evolving, and we started offering aluminium engine on our vehicles.
The Indian automotive ecosystem also had to be developed – and we played an active role in developing suppliers, quality and getting manufacturers certified to ISO or QS standards in the 80s and 90s. We brought in a new direction towards technology, design and progression through the late 90s and early 2000s, including work on the first world car, the Swift.
Today we have reached a stage where we are known as a reliable, dependable, fuel-efficient and a value for money brand. Going forward, we need to demonstrate more in terms of design and technology. We'll have to be the top runner in those counts as well. That is how we see the market over the next three to four years – introduce exciting new products, bring in products in new segments and also introduce cutting edge technology.
The AMT introduction on the Celerio is an interesting move.
Yes, the AMT discussion happened about five years back. Over the years, we have been benchmarking various two-pedal technologies such as the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), Automatic Transmission (AT) and the Automated Manual Transmission (AMT). AT was something we experimented with in the A-Star. We saw an improvement in penetration once we reduced the price, but fuel-efficiency was a concern in the customers' mind.
In our evaluation of the AMT, we found there was either no or very little penalty in terms of fuel consumption. Secondly, we set ourselves a very aggressive cost and price target. Thirdly, we had to undertake optimisation of all these technologies to ensure performance. The result is that the AMT is a well-accepted product in the market today. From a technology standpoint, we need to continue introducing similar, newer technologies in our upcoming products.
The future demands vehicles and components to become lighter. You had also undertaken work on lightweighting the suspension. What's the progress on that front?
Lightweighting is a very important, and we'll continue to focus on this aspect. However, one needs to ensure that in the process of lightweighting, body rigidity and strength is not compromised with. With the crash norms set to be notified soon, all manufacturers will have to move towards meeting those regulations. The basic structure of some of our models meets certain regulations for the future as well. We haven't tested them to that extent, but they have been designed that way. In the design process, the usage of high-tensile steel is increasing and that is what is leading the lightweighting trend in the body and platform.
Platform changes are also happening – the Celerio, for instance, was a new platform we introduced. Two things driving that are safety regulations and fuel efficiency improvements. For any engineer, the kerb weight is very important. Every component, every system is allocated a particular weight and the designer needs to ensure that. Failing to meet the weight target would mean failure in meeting the different targets of fuel efficiency, emissions, etc. The impact on weight has to be assessed right from the styling stage.
We are also exploring various alternatives to steel, including aluminium and plastic. Fuel tanks, fuel rail, air intake manifolds or the air cleaner system are more or less being introduced in plastic. The trend now is to look at possible deployment of tailor welded blanks and how to reduce thickness in say, the door trims, but ensure the strength doesn't get compromised. Lot of CAE tools are being used to verify this at various stages, enabling us to take care of most of these requirements much in advance, before it comes to the testing stage and try to build up strong correlation to actual testing. We are trying to make this a way of our design and development process, and the upcoming R&D facility at Rohtak is going to help us do that.
What's been your experience with plastics, and also, do we see the Rohtak centre undertaking any kind of material research?
Yes, we have to undertake material research as we move ahead. Currently, there is a material research group in Suzuki, Japan. We are engaging with plastic material suppliers like DuPont and Sabic, among others to understand the new materials that are coming, and what kind substitution that can happen with plastics. That kind of application related work is happening here but it will take some more time for us to start basic research on material. But it will happen for sure.
The Rohtak is set to be operational by 2016-17?
That is the target we are working with. The tracks are almost done, and the correlation will happen soon. The crash lab is ready, and equipment is being added. We have started doing homologation tests as well. We will be able to do all regulatory improvements and changes going forward and are prepared for any new safety norms that are notified in the future. But one important aspect in this is human resources. We need to train more people to be able to work on the 35-40 various tracks that are being built for both engineering and quality.
We currently use CAD for evaluation and then do physical prototyping. Most of our vehicles are sent to Japan for testing, and our work is based on the feedback we receive from them. But then, it's very important for the engineers to get experiential learning. Once the Rohtak centre
is operational, we'll be able to undertake a lot of tests here. We'll be able to evaluate the failure, correlate with CAE and improve the process and methodology.
It's a continuous effort.
As we move ahead, various other set-ups and labs will need to be built for suspension, engine, NVH, emission, brake, etc. Eventually, all bench-related tests and vehicle-related tests will get built and integrated in the next three years. The centre will improve the quality of our analysis, cut down development time, and increase efficiency.
Would the Rohtak centre eventually become a strategic hub for any particular area of technology for Suzuki globally?
It is not earmarked that way at this stage, but is slated to complement our R&D centre in Japan. We will have work share on various products and we'll be doing certain areas of development. As our capability and capacity grows, I'm sure we'll do more work for Suzuki globally.
How do you look at the growth of electronics in vehicles today?
The electrical and electromechanical component in vehicles is certainly increasing. Today, we see a trend for telematics, and many are evaluating the role infotainment would play in the future. Then there are developments related to connected cars. There is little doubt in my mind about the growth of electronics in our future vehicles. Everything in a car needs to be controlled and one needs to improve the changeover from mechanical to electrical controls, so that the reaction time is faster and control is better. It's an evolution that is happening and we'll see more of that.
But electronics is costly and we don't have infrastructure for electronics production. Almost nothing is made here. In fact, electronic parts are the second largest import content after crude oil in India.
In the Celerio, for instance, we could have used a mechanical pedal with a cable, but then we introduced the electronic throttle body and the electrical pedal. These inputs are required for the AMT technology to work, because it works on electrical impulses and signals. And the resultant feedback is much faster.
How are you approaching the hybridisation challenge, and how do you view the opportunity offered by the NEMMP?
There are various alternatives like mild hybrids or full hybrids, and then there are plug-in hybrids like the one we showcased at the last Auto Expo. But there are multiple challenges, including the lack of a charging infrastructure and range anxiety. EV and hybrid penetration even in mature markets is very small. Although many of these markets have incentivised EVs and hybrids, I don't believe it is a sustainable model. There are unique challenges to the Indian market, and I'm not too sure of any kind of large scale penetration in the long-term. NEMMP is an on-going process, and we are making some vehicles under the initiative.
Are you looking at increasing your diesel engine portfolio?
Of late, we have noticed a slowdown in diesel penetration in the market, compared to what it was two years back. Having said that there is a strong opportunity in the diesel market, and we have talked about our plans of introduction of an 800 cc diesel engine sometime next year. This will go into some of our products, including a light commercial vehicle (LCV) that will be introduced sometime next year.
Text: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah
Photo: Maruti Suzuki