The future of mobility expected to witness major transformations in terms of powertrains, vehicle control and usage patterns, but certain components and systems will continue to be part of the vehicle irrespective of future changes. One such area is the vehicle’s suspension system. In a recent visit to Gabriel India Ltd, we learnt about the company’s focus on achieving manufacturing excellence for high quality suspension products for two- and three-wheelers.
The automotive industry could see four-wheelers shift to advanced active suspension systems, but the larger two- and three-wheeler market segments still require suspension systems consisting of forks, springs and shock absorbers. Auto Tech Review recently met up with Atul Jaggi, Senior Vice-President & Chief Operating Officer, Two & Three Wheeler Business Unit and Commercial Vehicle Business Unit, Gabriel India Ltd, at the company’s plant at Hosur, Tamil Nadu to know more.
The company’s Hosur facility is one of the seven plants of Gabriel, which is the flagship company of the Anand Group. It must be noted that the Anand Group began its business in 1961 with its first manufacturing facility for Gabriel in Maharashtra. The Hosur plant – currently the largest among all seven Gabriel facilities – was established in 1997. The company claims to be unique in the sense that it has a presence in the suspension/shock absorber business with products that cater to all segments, including two- & three-wheelers, passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles as well as Indian railways.
GABRIEL HOSUR PLANT
The Hosur plant manufactures shock absorbers and front forks for the front and rear suspension systems of motorcycles, scooters and three-wheelers. This facility is focussed on supplying suspension components to OEMs located primarily in the southern part of India. The plant has a total annual production capacity of around 15 mn units per year, including shock absorbers and front forks. In parallel with the industry’s breakup of segments, Gabriel’s production capacity is segregated into motorcycles, scooters and three-wheelers in the ratio of about 60:30:10. Jaggi noted that Gabriel is the market leader in India for scooters and three-wheeler suspensions.
The facility has a total headcount of 1,100 employees and adheres to the Operating Engineer (OE) model for those working in the shopfloor. All OEs hold a diploma degree, and the plant includes 20 % of women workforce. In addition, the employees on the plant floor come from various parts of the country, representing a diverse population. A major portion of business for this plant comes from the domestic market, with the plant also carrying out a small amount of exports to countries such as Japan, Columbia, Indonesia and Brazil. Jaggi said around 75 % of the total power consumed at the Hosur plant is generated from renewable sources such as a combination of solar and wind energy. Further, other sustainability initiatives include 95 % re-use of water discharged from various processes and Nano powder coating process.
On the shopfloor, Gabriel India carries out three main steps – machining, sub-assembly and final assembly – in the manufacturing of suspension systems. These three key processes are only carried out on the front fork tubes, which are supplied to the plant from external and internal sources. The process improvements applied to machining has helped reduce the number of machines used for this process from six to two. Similarly, the machining process earlier used to require five OEs, but now is manned by a single OE.
The second main process of sub-assembly includes the assembly of various small child parts in a particular order that ensure proper working of fork tubes, shock absorbers and all related components like gas-filled canisters. The sub-assembly leverages a high level of automation to ensure that the small child components are assembled accurately, without which sub-assemblies do not move further along the line. The final assembly is carried out on a line that comprises manual and automated processes, and also includes complete in-process testing for every single component that is assembled.
The company carries out all core operations for manufacturing of its products inside the factory. Jaggi said all high-end process and product technologies such as machining, grinding and powder coating, among others are carried out in-house, while other less-critical operations are outsourced. This method facilitates the maintenance of quality as well as technological process expertise. In addition, OEs are encouraged to provide feedback on process improvements and enhancements so as to enable improved quality and production efficiency.
In order to enable proper manufacturing methods, Gabriel’s process experts at the Process Innovation Centre also build and customise machines that cater to the production of critical components. Jaggi observed that Gabriel has gathered a lot of knowhow with its experience in the suspension systems domain since 1961. Therefore, the company has access to data with regards to market information on Indian road conditions, vehicles and customer preferences. All these capabilities provide Gabriel with the ability to carry out process innovations as well as safeguard its technology, in terms of IPs.
Citing an example of the company’s manufacturing process improvement, Jaggi mentioned about how it enhanced its machining processes for front forks. The process improvements which cannot be disclosed due to IP reasons, have doubled the plant’s production output while consuming about half the energy than earlier. Such process improvements ensure Gabriel has the lowest warranty issues in the shock absorbers business segment across the country, he noted.
Continuing with the process improvements, Gabriel uses robotic assemblies where robots are deployed for critical operations. Such automation provides the company an edge not only in terms of productivity, but also in quality, Jaggi observed. Production and assembly operations of critical nature as well as in-process checking are carried out by robots, ensuring high quality standards. Gabriel was the first company in India to use robots for manufacturing suspension systems, and continues to work on further expanding such lines, claimed Jaggi.
Gabriel divides projects for development into three categories. The first category is identifying methods to help sustain the current business by making small updates to the existing product itself for enhancements. Jaggi also noted that cost innovation is another aspect that can help sustain current customers in the company’s fold. Simple innovations of existing products at low cost differential can be put into focus in this first category.
The second kind of development would be focussed towards the company’s acquisition of fresh business, by working with the products present in its portfolio itself. Some of the steps undertaken here would be towards enhancing the features of the current products to better suit new customers, as well as adding new specifications. Such development does not provide the company with any cutting-edge developments, noted Jaggi. The third type of development is the most relevant for future trends, since such advancements will provide the company with a distinct technological advantage, Jaggi observed. It will work around developing completely new products addressing future technological demands, and not necessarily for any particular customer.
Gabriel has a clear focus on providing engineering support for OEM customers in the overall development of vehicles, with expertise in the areas of suspension systems and related systems (like chassis). The main aim of this joint development approach is to offer OEMs with first-time right solutions by pre-empting failures in the area of suspensions, Jaggi said. Similarly, Gabriel has also been working on different technologies for various racing platforms, which is a good way of using and validating new technologies.
Gabriel India, through approaches mentioned earlier, has filed for 75 patents with regards to various suspension technologies. In terms of physical validation, the company leverages machines that have multiple testing capabilities. Damper testing machine and universal cam drum machine are two such machines used at the company’s R&D facility for closed-loop testing. In addition to this, the Hosur plant has a two-wheeler suspension torture test track that is mainly used for ride control assessment of vehicles.
The company also conducts technology shows along with customers, where it showcases current and future technologies concerning suspension systems from the perspectives of engineering, processes and products. These shows are carried out together with domestic as well as international customers, enabling Gabriel to learn about the future developments of these customers, noted Jaggi.
Vehicles are becoming better and road conditions also improving, although maybe not at expected levels, and these are increasing the expectations of customers, noted Jaggi. This is leading to higher usage of gas-charged suspensions. A welcome trend is that gas-charged suspensions are not only being adopted in motorcycles, but also in scooters. Similarly, there is an increased move in the industry towards electrification, and this drift necessitates two major requirements for two- and three-wheeler EVs – low NVH and lightweighting. The lower motor sound of EVs and the requirement for increased range of these vehicles have necessitated the need for improved NVH as well as newer materials.
In terms of the adoption of adjustable suspension systems, the manual adjustment for rear shock absorbers has been around for many years. However, there is a lot of focus on bringing in different kinds of adjustable suspensions, both manually and electronically. Such adjustable suspensions are part of the company’s portfolio, but are not in use at present, since the market and customers do not see immediate need for them, added Jaggi.
These new adjustable suspension systems are witnessing an influx of electronics, with a number of different kinds of adjustments coming, in terms of damping and other factors. As a company with in-house R&D and focus towards bringing innovations to customers, it is an important aspect of its technical roadmap in offering newer products with such electronic functionalities, Jaggi noted.
Another trend that is slowly gathering interest, in terms of front suspension, is that of inverted forks that have been associated mostly with performance motorcycles. Gabriel has inverted forks in its portfolio with different varieties for scooters and motorcycles. Gabriel has in recent times seen some interest from customers for inverted front forks, he added.
It is clear that Gabriel India is making amends to enhance process and manufacturing excellence to improve the quality of its products as well as infuse production efficiency technologies. The company is leveraging automation and digitisation to enable product and process traceability, in addition to improving efficiency through real-time data acquisition and analysis. The use of digitisation also provides a clear edge, in terms of achieving quality standards. Jaggi said digitisation, Industry 4.0 and automation will all need to work together to achieve significant results.
TEXT & PHOTO: Naveen Arul