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By Jason Brett, February 4, 2013
"Do you realize," I asked my wife as I drove our new minivan off the dealer’s lot, "that we have the only DVD player in town with a seven year warranty?" She chuckled with the usual thoughts of someone who has just purchased an extended warranty: the contradictory combination of both hoping that you "get your money’s worth" while at the same time hoping that you’ll never have to make a claim. It wasn’t just the DVD player that was covered, though. It was the ceiling mounted LCD display, the power seats, the heated mirrors, the anti-lock brakes, the climate control system, a dozen or so airbags, and countless other electrical systems and subsystems that weren’t even available as options when we bought our previous car. Somehow, over a reasonably short period of time, the minivan had evolved from a simple means of transportation to a climate controlled, airbag enhanced, multimedia entertainment palace on wheels - while becoming safer, more reliable, more powerful, and more efficient in the process.
To find out more about the people and processes behind this transformation I contacted Cecil Lucas, a systems engineer with ESG Automotive. This company provides car manufacturers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and tier one suppliers worldwide with technical expertise, tools, and training. "Automotive is a tough space," Cecil explains. "Since twenty years, the automotive industry has constantly been trying to compress the design cycle while adding more and more complexity with infotainment, greater safety systems, and more diagnostics." ESG Automotive might help a client interface a new back-up camera to an existing multimedia system, or integrate an active suspension system with ride height sensors. All the while, they have to keep the system affordable and reliable while working from an existing set of components and connections.
"It is rare to start a design from a blank sheet of paper. Even new cars like the Volt and Prius carried over components from existing designs," Cecil points out. "A major challenge is mixing the old with the new quickly and efficiently."
To aid in this process, ESG Automotive takes advantage of the object-oriented architecture of Zuken’s E3.series software. Rather than being a derivative of a mechanical CAD package, E3.series was designed from the ground up to address the inherently unique challenges in designing and documenting electrical and fluid power systems.
Cecil and his colleagues can access a comprehensive library of electrical components and connectors - or they can design their own to integrate new parts into existing designs. The object-oriented nature of E3.series means that when a part is inserted into one drawing, the same part becomes part of all the other relevant drawings automatically (see figure 1). Engineers don’t have to worry about updating their wiring harness drawings when, for instance, they make changes to schematic drawings, because the engineers are working with the same objects in every type of drawing. The sole difference is in how the software displays the parts.
|Figure 1: E3.Series software from Zuken showing several views of the same automotive electrical layout|
E3.series encourages modular and hierarchical design; subsystems can be embedded within larger systems, and engineers can choose to work on systems right down to the level of individual components. "Zuken’s software can characterize all the components: the wires, the boards, the interfaces, the package technology," says Cecil. "It represents the entire vehicle electrically with all its elements." This gives engineers flexibility in trying out different designs, while remaining confident that the solution with which they end up will be accurately represented in the final product. Cecil mentioned that he had worked with other systems in the past but once he started with Zuken’s E3.series he quickly came to one conclusion. "This is it." he enthusiastically espoused, "It’s the ideal design tool for automotive!"
This ability to completely describe new and existing components is important particularly when working with design "reuse." This is where selected systems and sub-systems carried over from a previous model year, are integrated with the latest greatest technology. Being the first to implement new functions is particularly important when dealing with increasingly fickle automotive consumers.
"Leasing has enabled people to change cars the way they change wardrobes. And so you need to keep customers interested," Cecil explains. Often, whatever the newest technology is, it needs to be added to the electrical harness and assembly line flow that was established years earlier. "Automotive is different, it’s not top-down," he says. Addressing the nature of the design process, he adds, "E3.series allows me to start top-down, bottom-up, or inside-out. I can verify that the old systems continue to work with the new systems. E3.series' architecture supports this concept."
|Figure 2: The harness layout for an automobile bundles wires between locations|
The abilities of E3.series software are evident when it comes to developing brand new designs. There is a government-mandated push for fuel efficiency, and so one way for automotive manufacturers to implement this is to reduce vehicle weight wherever possible. With body components and the power plant, weight savings come from switching to lower density materials, such as replacing steel panels with plastic, or swapping a cast iron cylinder head for an aluminum one. But when it comes to electrical systems, there is no better replacement for the reliability, cost, and conductivity of copper wire for the tight spaces found in automobiles.
Cecil estimates that after the body and power plant, the electrical system represents the third most significant weight contributor in many vehicles. This may seem high to the casual observer, but the reason is because of the distributed nature of the electrical system. You rarely find the entire electrical system in one place, as you would with the engine or a door; there are wires everywhere, but they’re in places that the consumer wouldn’t normally see.
With electrical systems contributing so much to the weight of the vehicle, this means that careful design can result in significant savings – not only to the cost of the vehicle, but also to the operating cost, the weight, and the manufacturer’s CAFE (government-mandated corporate average fuel economy rating). "It is an interesting decision making process," Cecil tells me. "Do we use a single fuse box for the entire vehicle, or multiple electrical distribution centers? One approach that might save weight, but then adds cost." Cost is something that can add up quickly when producing 500,000 or more vehicles a year. The challenge is compounded by the variety of options available with modern vehicles; some sell with a basic sound system, some with a 12-speaker surround system. Some sell with heated seats in the front, others with seat-back televisions for the rear passengers. Cecil appreciates the ability of E3.series software to allow him to rapidly and accurately model each of these situations. "With Zuken, we quickly get to a real answer."
Perhaps the real power behind the E3.series software suite lies in its open architecture, which makes it flexible. Users can integrate E3.series into their development process fully. By using the included API (application programming interface), they can develop custom tools to extract and interchange data with existing software systems. Cecil is for instance currently working with clients to help adapt E3.series to share component information from different tier one and OEM suppliers. The aim is to make the design process even more efficient. (And by the way, I’ve found that E3.series isn’t limited to automotive electrical systems; it works just as well for the design of stationary machines, power plants, aircraft, and industrial equipment.)
There is a good chance that when you get in your car today, your drive will benefit from the work of systems engineers like Cecil Lucas and exuberant design teams like those at ESG Automotive – or even from the object-oriented architecture of Zuken’s E3.series software. When you adjust the power seat, tweak the power mirror, tune in to your favorite satellite radio station, call home on your spiffy new integrated Bluetooth communications system, and safely back into your garage using the backup camera and distance sensors, you’ll know that your car is at the leading edge of the evolution of the automobile. Personally, I can’t help but say "Thanks!" as I wonder what sort of systems I’ll be using after that seven-year extended warranty expires!
Cecil Lucas is a Systems Engineer with ESG Automotive who brings years of experience to helping automotive manufacturers solve electrical and electronic design challenges.
|Jason Brett teaches electronics and materials science in the Technology Teacher Education Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He 13 years of experience in technology education. More...|