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CUSTOMER PROXIMITY WITH AN EYE TOWARD THE FUTURE

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTERS SHAPE CHANGES IN THE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY

A cross in a circle—hardly bigger than a lentil. Numbering in the thousands, elegant, activated carbon particles such as these ensure that no gasoline vapors can escape from the fuel tank. MAHLE’s high-tech solution in a carbon canister is called macroporous activated carbon. From the outside, the canister looks like a black box with random openings. Nothing out of the ordinary, at first glance. But without it, no vehicle would be granted type approval in the United States. “At least 80 percent of all Japanese vehicles sold in the United States today are fitted with our activated carbon canisters,” notes Keiichi Maekawa, Head of the MAHLE research and development center in Kawagoe/Japan.

The think tank located just over an hour north of Tokyo focuses primarily on filtration and air supply systems for vehicles. Their latest development is a flap system to optimize the engine air supply on demand. “Before, there were two settings: open and closed. Today, we can finely tune the system to dispense the just amount needed, and even save fuel,” explains R&D engineer Junichi Matsuzaki. As he speaks, his colleagues are pushing a new van into the soundproof test workshop. Soundproof? That’s typical for the Tokyo metropolitan area, where open spaces are rare and people live and work in close proximity. In the workshop, the flap solution will undergo countless intensive tests before it will be presented to customers. But the testing is not just taking place in the vehicle. Engineers are also running tests in a cold chamber, for instance, to determine whether the flaps will continue to operate properly even if the system is subjected to icy temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius.

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"At least 80 percent of all japanese vehicles sold in the u.s. today are fitted with activated carbon canisters."

Keiichi Maekawa Head of the MAHLE development center in Kawagoe/Japan

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT IN A GLOBAL NETWORK

The research and development center in Kawagoe is part of a global network in which MAHLE develops new components and systems in near-world conditions. As Dr. Otmar Scharrer, Vice President Corporate Research and Advanced Engineering, points out: “These facilities are a continuation of the work of our Research and Advanced Engineering.” This division has been a fundamental building block of our MAHLE DNA since the company was founded almost 100 years ago. At that time, Ernst Mahle developed the innovations that contributed to the success story of the combustion engine from his workshop in Stuttgart. Today, MAHLE engineers in 15 research and development centers worldwide are joining forces to make engines and vehicles last longer and perform better—regardless of the chosen powertrain—and their efforts are actively shaping the changes currently taking place in the automotive industry. They are also developing tailor-made solutions to address specific requirements of local markets.

To conduct research and development in a global network, it takes an extensive knowledge base and a great deal of experience. But the ability to take a broader view of things is equally essential. “We create expert committees to tackle defined strategic issues, divide up the jobs to be performed, and come together on a regular basis to discuss our work,” says Scharrer, in describing the integrated approach to work that ensures an efficient transfer of technology at MAHLE.

As diverse as the work is, however, engineers are continuously called upon to strike a balance between diversification and standardization. Particularly in markets that seem quite disparate at first glance, it can be particularly useful to identify synergies and economies of scale, as these can give MAHLE fresh momentum going beyond the regional scale.

FROM NATURAL GAS TO TWO-WHEELERS

"We need to have a sense today of what our customers will be asking for eight or ten years from now."

Dr. Otmar Scharrer Vice President Corporate Research and Advanced Engineering

The range of topics is multifaceted. Developers in Stuttgart, for example, are currently directing much of their effort to discovering how to make engines run on natural gas (CNG). “It’s an interesting alternative to conventional fuels, since it lowers CO2 emissions by nearly one third,” explains Scharrer. But a number of technical questions still remain, such as how to handle the increased pressure and friction that arise in the combustion chamber. MAHLE is currently developing a strategy to address this phenomenon in a partnership with a large German manufacturer.

In Numazu/Japan, within reach of Mount Fuji, the MAHLE colleagues are working to come up with technical solutions for two-wheeled vehicles. Their R&D efforts are aimed specifically at addressing the needs of Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. Scharrer provides the reasoning behind this strategic approach: “The focus at our facilities simply rests on the customer— because we need to have a sense today of what our customers will be asking for eight or ten years from now.”

A HOLISTIC VIEW OF THE VEHICLE—FROM A SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE

That’s just one reason why, for quite some time now, developers at MAHLE have been monitoring the changes currently transforming the automotive industry. “We’re still looking at how we can improve the combustion engine, since it will continue to power vehicles for a long time to come. At the same time, however, we’re giving a great deal of thought to how we can play an active role in shaping e-mobility,” explains Scharrer.The way this visionary sees it, the focus is not just on the electric drive. “That’s already a mature technology. In the future, the battery will be the actual engine. And ultimately, the battery determines a vehicle’s performance,” says Scharrer, summing it up in a nutshell. He goes on, stressing just how crucial it will be to take a holistic view of the vehicle as a system and to develop solutions that will advance this approach: “MAHLE’s R&D centers will play a key role in this effort.”

Engine Test MAHLE Japan
Cold Chamber MAHLE Japan

GLOBAL STANDARDS AND AN ADDED-VALUE NETWORK

An active exchange of ideas among the MAHLE think tanks calls for uniform standards across the various divisions. “We develop many of our measurement methods in-house, since we typically break into new areas of technology in a pioneering role,” explains Scharrer. This work is an ongoing process and cannot be underestimated, he says, adding that it’s the only way to exploit the facilities’ full capability. Findings from a test bench in Jundiaí or Northampton can thus be implemented by colleagues in Stuttgart or Shanghai and used to develop new products there. “This is where it becomes evident that MAHLE’s global R&D network really does provide tremendous prospects for the company,” says Scharrer.

Tetsuya Handa, an R&D engineer in Numazu, describes an example of the results of such global cooperation: “Working together with our Thermal Management colleagues in Stuttgart, we developed a new fan. We suspected that a need would arise for such a cooling unit at some point.” And indeed, as the Japanese engineer proudly recounts: “A short time later, our colleagues in the U.S. were looking for a solution that would maintain the battery of an electric vehicle at the optimal temperature.” The new MAHLE product is planned to go into series production in 2017—developed in Numazu and Stuttgart for a customer in the United States. For R&D head Scharrer, that’s no coincidence; it’s the result of the perfect collaborative interplay among MAHLE engineers around the world: “It’s exactly this type of cooperation that accounts for MAHLE’s strength today.”