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FROM LOCAL EXPERTS TO KEY GLOBAL PLAYERS

MECHATRONICS DIVISION PROMOTES DEVELOPMENT OF ELECTRIC DRIVES

White pyramids project from the walls of the room, which is secured by a heavy metal door. In its center is a directional antenna, consisting of pairs of metallic rods, which is aimed at a motor. It’s a futuristic scenario vaguely reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise in the American science fiction series, Star Trek. One is tempted to call out: “Beam me up, Scotty!” “Should I turn on the devices now? Oh wait, that wouldn’t be too good for us,” proclaims a laughing voice through the loudspeaker. “Scotty,” the Head Engineer of controls and devices on the other side of the metal door, is called Gregor Ergaver in real life. He explains the actual reason behind the chamber with the white pyramids: “Here, we are testing whether an electromagnetic environment impacts our motor’s performance and whether our motor produces electromagnetic emissions that could disturb communication devices.” Electric motors are a sophisticated technology, but developments such as WIFI and mobile networks are having completely new effects that must be looked into.

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“We have over 50 years of experience with all types of electric motors”

Robert Vodopivec Head Developer MAHLE Letrika

VERSATILITY, POWERED BY ELECTRICITY

The EMC chamber, where electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is investigated, is one of many testing facilities at MAHLE Letrika in Šempeter pri Gorici/Slovenia, a 30-minute car ride away from Trieste/Italy. The MAHLE location—with its approximately 1,500 employees— manufactures electric drives for steering systems, starter motors, forklifts, scooters, and, recently, also for a passenger car that’s scheduled to hit the market in 2018. Over 60 different electric drives are produced here. Šempeter pri Gorici is a hands-on example of what a motor factory of the future will look like when vehicles are no longer powered by combustion engines. Glints of copper shine here, there, and everywhere; electric motors of every size are being assembled, tested, and packed for shipping to the customer.

All the while MAHLE engineers are experimenting with new solutions. Before such a series electric motor can roll off the assembly lines, it must be adapted to meet a broad range of customer demands, as well as passing numerous tests and undergoing load testing. One such test involves subjecting up to four starter motors simultaneously to intense vibrations on a shaker system, to determine whether the components are capable of withstanding these stresses. NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) engineer Andrej Baša explains the reason behind the vibration test: “In a large electric motor, the rotor alone can weigh more than ten kilograms. If the electric motor is subjected to high vibration levels, the unwanted movement of the rotor can cause damage or even break a heavy-duty motor housing.” Here, the drives of the future are subjected to as much stress in just a few hours as they might normally experience only over a long motor life.

NOISE TRACKERS

In the next room over, they’re working at a more subtle level: NVH experts Borut Peljhan and his colleagues are attempting to root out the sources of noise produced by an alternator. Their quest unfolds in a soundproof room equipped with sensitive microphones. “Sometimes, it’s the position of the fan blades that causes disturbing noises. In that case, we have to reposition the blades,” says this detective of noise annoyance. Fans are a critical component in electric machines because these can generate enormous amounts of heat and would not last long without a cooling system.

Wrapping miles of copper wire around a coil is just the beginning when it comes to making advanced electric motors. Here, too, there’s no getting around electronics. The right controls and sensors are produced in clean rooms under the watchful eye of Marijan Kerševan, electronics production manager: “We used to buy the sensors that measure things like drive axis revolutions from outside sources.” But the quality was extremely inconsistent. So they decided to manufacture their electronic components in-house. And, as Kerševan happily reports: “Eventually, we were able not only to make better sensors, but also to save money doing it.”

MAHLE Letrika Mechatronic
MAHLE Numazu

A PILLAR OF THE MAHLE GROUP

“We have over 50 years of experience with all types of electric motors,” says Head Developer Robert Vodopivec. Until just a few years ago, the Slovenian manufacturer was only active in a few regional markets. Today, MAHLE Letrika is a pillar of the new Mechatronics division, which encompasses all the Group’s operations in electric main and auxiliary drives. “Since we’ve been a part of MAHLE, our range of operations has expanded significantly. Today, we operate on a global scale, and customers from all over the world are interested in our products,” reports Vodopivec, whose primary task is to promote the development of drives for the automotive industry.

SOLUTIONS FOR NEW EMISSIONS LIMITS

Interest from the automotive industry is keen. Iztok Špacapan, Head of Development at MAHLE Letrika, tells why: “Manufacturers are under immense pressure because they will need to comply with the emissions limit of 95 grams CO2 per kilometer by 2021.” One way to meet these stringent regulations, he says, is to use electric drives in combination with combustion engines. “Our 48-volt mild hybrid system with a 15-kilowatt output is an attractive solution that we can deliver to customers,” Špacapan points out. The system is the result of years of experience devoted to developing and manufacturing drives for industrial applications. “That’s how we know exactly what requirements these drives have to meet.”

As electrical systems evolve from 12 to 48 volts, Špacapan sees a trend that will change the car in the coming years: “It’s a step that makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, because they’ll achieve a lot with relatively straightforward investments,” explains the lead developer. Thanks to the higher voltage, many engine accessories such as pumps and fans can be decoupled from the engine. This lessens the load on the engine, lowering fuel consumption and emissions. “We can deliver the right drive for all these units,” Špacapan notes.

Since the Slovenian location has been part of MAHLE, much has changed for the mechatronics experts—not just in terms of what they’re working on, but also how they work. “Today, we operate in a global R&D alliance,” explains Vodopivec. Instead of traveling just a few hundred kilometers to the nearest customer in Europe, as he used to do, he now travels the world for MAHLE. The Slovenian is also a frequent visitor to Asian destinations, including Japan. He finds common ground, in technology and in other aspects alike. The Japanese colleagues are advancing this evolution toward e-mobility at MAHLE along with their Slovenian counterparts. “Previously, as Kokusan Denki we focused primarily on our domestic Japanese market,” recalls Rikio Yoshikawa, President of the Japanese operations. “Today, as MAHLE Electric Drives Japan, we’re part of a global player.”

As part of the Mechatronics division established in 2016, the Numazu location manufactures a range of electric drives. And like Letrika, Kokusan Denki—a company with a deep heritage that’s located not far from the snow- capped Mount Fuji—brought a vast trove of knowledge to the table as it joined the new MAHLE operation. “We have an extremely well-developed supplier network, for instance, that gives us access to excellent quality in a range of materials and intermediate products,” Yoshikawa reports.

TOWARD NEW MARKETS

"One of our focus points is drives with an output of under one kilowatt."

Rikio Yoshikawa

“One of our focus points is drives with an output of under one kilowatt,” remarks the Japanese mechatronics pecialist. His teams are currently hard at work on developing solutions aimed at tapping another market for MAHLE—one that is completely new for the company. Yoshikawa remains tight-lipped about the details. Series production is scheduled to launch in 2018, he intimates. Then, with a knowing smile, he quips: “In urban areas in particular, lots of people want to get around without relying on cars. Now, wouldn’t a comfortable bicycle sporting an e-drive be an appealing solution?”