Automotive lighting not only carries out the role of providing visibility to the driver and occupants of a vehicle but also enables the vehicle to be visible to other road users. However, this component has moved ‘light years’ ahead towards becoming an important aspect of the vehicle’s aesthetics and safety. The tail lamp and head light of a vehicle provide it with brand identity in today’s time, and also carry important functions as alert mechanisms for other road users in case of emergencies.
There has been a transition in the method of visibility provided by lighting systems as well as the importance that the design of these components play in the overall vehicle’s design language. Varroc Lighting Systems (VLS) had been in the automotive lighting business for less than a decade when it acquired Visteon Corporation’s facility at Hinjewadi, Pune, in 2012. However, the origins of the company that VLS acquired go back 140 years. This VLS plant caters only to the passenger four-wheelers and commercial vehicle markets, with the two-wheeler business coming from another of Varroc Group’s companies.
Auto Tech Review visited the VLS Hinjewadi plant and spoke to Vikas Puri, India Business Unit Head, Varroc Lighting Systems (India) Pvt Ltd (Above), and Udaysinh Deshmukh, Associate Vice President, India Operations, Varroc Lighting Systems (India) Pvt Ltd (Below). Apart from the manufacturing process carried out at the facility, Puri and Deshmukh provided insights into the trends in automotive lighting, unique technologies applied, design and development work, and future investments.
AUTOMOTIVE LIGHTING TRENDS
Electric vehicles (EV) demands reduction of battery load with regards to lighting. Puri said the way to approach this requirement is to move from traditional halogen and bulb type lamps to LED lighting systems as LEDs not only help in reducing the power load required from the battery, but are also more efficient in terms of the lumens (quantity of visible light emitted by a source) offered. The LED technology supports the cause of EVs in helping reduce the battery load, which can enable improved range.
As a next step, VLS is looking to launch products aimed at increasing the ability of drivers to see and navigate during the night. These products will help improve night vision with lighting that provides much wider and further distance of cover. Traditional lights are pale yellow in colour unlike LEDs, which provide white light that is more in line with day light exposure. Puri said these combined features essentially make LED lighting systems a choice of future mobility systems. LED lighting and projector units are going to be the future, for which VLS is geared up, Deshmukh said.
As the lighting technology moves forward, customers are also getting more demanding in terms of styling and design protection. In terms of uniqueness in the market, VLS is trying to benchmark across various lighting platforms available across the globe and develop a feature-packed end product. These benchmarked platforms could include products from the VLS stable or from that of its competitors.
VLS is also offering design protection of lighting systems to its customers, which enables customers to add next-generation features to their existing design platform. This can enable leapfrogging of the design process and help customers offer new-age features to their existing product platforms. VLS is also developing smart lighting technologies for the future, which will address the needs for emission norms, lightweighting and safety norms.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
VLS works closely with customers for the design and styling aspects of the product platform. Every new platform typically takes about 18-24 months of development time. The design concept includes the participation of the photometry team, along with experts in mechanical design and electronics. Once the design concept is finalised, the cross-functional team, including areas of production, project management, design and quality, comes together to firstly understand the design and then move into building prototypes.
The cross-functional team carries out a number of technical design reviews (TDR), following which prototype production is carried out. The prototype building begins with designing and trying out tools, and then assembling the prototypes that are submitted back to customers for incorporation of changes and final approvals. The ultimate result of this process comes in preparing for mass production of the final product, said Deshmukh.
Puri noted that the selection of manufacturing technology of products at VLS begins right from the design phase itself. The company keeps in mind the expected global movement in trends and technologies, in order to fix on the designs for testing and manufacturing. Varroc is seen as a preferred supplier by customers whenever there is a requirement for a technology-oriented component in the automotive lighting arena, Puri claimed.
Selection of raw materials is carried out based on the requirements expected out of the end-product. All lighting components are manufactured using plastics alone, and VLS leverages engineered polymers that are fully-recyclable. The materials used are of low density and light in weight, resulting in good illumination performance of the end products. All the paints used on the lighting systems are UV-coated for protection from the elements.
VLS has its tech centre in another location in Pune, with around 240 engineers working on both domestic and global programmes. This centre has expertise in electronics, mechanics and telemetrics, and is the centre of excellence for the company globally in these areas. The company has similar centres of excellence in other locations worldwide, focussing on other areas of automotive lighting systems manufacturing.
VLS HINJEWADI PLANT
The VLS plant at Hinjewadi manufactures headlamps, tail lights, daytime running lights and fog lamps predominantly for four-wheeler passenger vehicles as well as for commercial vehicles. It produces a total of about 1.2 mn units per year, and is the exclusive supplier of some of these automotive lighting systems to high-end vehicle manufacturers. The facility employs about 650 operators, and is currently utilising between 70-75 % of the total production capacity.
The company draws core strength from its global reach and expertise with regards to equipment & process selection and process & tool designing. In terms of uniqueness, VLS leverages world-class equipment in the manufacture of lighting systems, especially for the metallising and base coating processes. Additionally, the company depends heavily on automation, deliberately keeping manual intervention as low as possible to maintain quality and efficiency.
At the group level, Varroc has undertaken a number of initiatives to address the need for reduction of power consumption across all its plants, noted Deshmukh. And to achieve these initiatives, the company has initiated steps, including the replacement of hydraulic drives with servo drives for key equipment as well as electrically-heated hot water generation. The company has laid out a roadmap to enable solar power generation, which is expected to be initiated in 2020.
With regards to connected and digitalised manufacturing, which are the steps towards achieving Industry 4.0, VLS is working on certain projects at the corporate level, observed Deshmukh. However, he said the plant has already kicked off certain IoT initiatives, such as connecting all critical equipment in the plant to a dashboard, which enables improved monitoring of efficiency and maintenance of the equipment.
The VLS Hinjewadi facility houses a Learning Centre, called Gurukal for new joinees, where a four-week induction programme is carried out. Employees are provided training in areas of safety, parts introduction, mould introduction, wiring & bulbs, parts handling, and assembly. Following the completion of training satisfactorily, the new-joinees are shadowed by their trainers in manufacturing in non-critical areas, after which they are moved into regular production.
Manufacturing of headlamps and tail lamps include a number of processes that begin from pellets of plastic that eventually turn into finished lighting modules. The headlamp consists of processes including moulding, base coating of reflectors, metallising of reflectors, painting of headlamp lens and final assembly. In the case of tail lamps, the processes come in the form of moulding of lens and housing, metallising reflectors, welding and final assembly.
The plant has 16 moulding machines at present, with three-colour moulding machine for lenses. The three-colour moulding machines are used for rear lights, where a lens has both transparent and coloured finishes. This specialised lens moulding machine automatically moulds three layers of different colour into finished lens that does not have any seams, giving it a smooth finish for improved aesthetics.
The plant carries out coating processes that includes functions of base coating, hard coating and then moulding. The coating process begins from washing the moulded component and letting it cure and subsequently carrying out paint application, followed by infrared and ultraviolet layers, and then finished off with moulding. Coating is carried out for various parts of the headlamp and tail lamp. In a differentiated move from competitor products, VLS directly metallises certain reflectors without coating. Deshmukh said this is achievable due to the high-quality moulding carried out at the plant using specialised equipment.
All lighting modules need to go through the welding process to bring all the components together into a single unit. The company leverages multiple types of welding processes such as hot plate, vibration, laser and ultrasonic. The type of welding employed will be selected based on the requirements of the finished module. The final assembly is carried out across 10 lines in the plant, with a separate one for projector unit assembly, which is a controlled room due to the high-quality nature of these modules. Each and every module is finished off with an end-of-line testing before being packaged. In addition to this, the plant also has a quality lab with a dark room that is used to test head light and tail lamp photometry, and is also utilised for benchmarking products.
VLS has been making investments in the areas of future requirements of technology, which will aid in addressing customer needs better. Some of these investments have gone towards localising projection units, setting-up multi-colour moulding, increasing automation of critical manufacturing, and enabling 100 % inspection and testing for traceability, said Deshmukh. The company’s prime investment areas will be around anything that adds to the future technology requirements of customers, added Deshmukh.
VLS is also in the process of setting-up a new manufacturing facility in Chennai, to address customers who are present in the region. This new facility is expected to become functional by 2019-end – it will cater to four-wheeler passenger cars and commercial vehicles, and are hopeful of acquiring some business from two-wheeler manufacturers as well. With all these technologies, and manufacturing footprint in place, VLS is on the path to being well-equipped to offer customers with all lighting solutions required in the future with low turnaround times.
TEXT: Naveen Arul
PHOTO: Naveen Arul/ VLS