As Ricardo unveils its new Electrified Propulsion Research Centre at Shoreham Technical Centre, Dr Mike Bates Technical Lead for Test Operations gives his insight into the capabilities of the new facility, and the time and cost benefits it will offer to customers through advanced used of virtual product development.
What motivated Ricardo to invest in an Electrified Propulsion Research Centre?
MB - "The development of technology in vehicle systems and products has led to more complexity across all powertrain and vehicle types: conventional engines, hybrids and electric vehicles. Additionally, across the transport sectors OEMs are being challenged to reduce product development time and costs: for example, by reducing the cost of producing prototype vehicles and better exploiting the benefits and gains to be made from advanced virtual product development simulation tools.
Therefore, we needed an optimised environment in which to test and validate those powertrain and vehicle systems with a wide range of representative boundary conditions, enabling us to reproduce the complex system interactions in a way that is not achievable in a conventional component or subsystem test rig.
"Our new Electrified Propulsion Research Centre allows us to test complete vehicles or powertrains, in which the subsystems are connected and arranged as they would be in a vehicle. For example, we can run a hybrid system with different drive units at the front and rear; we can simulate subsystems that are not yet available or test virtual configurations to validate simulations. In all cases, drive cycles and other realistic transient use cases can be employed to assess real-world scenarios with a high degree of repeatability.
"We wanted performance to spare, as our customer base is so diverse – encompassing high-performance automotive, commercial and off-highway vehicles, and heavy-duty applications, so the capabilities of the equipment had to match these requirements. We needed flexibility to accommodate the full range of test configurations with minimum time and effort to reconfigure, so the facility is modular. We can operate as a large single test chamber or two independent chambers, or with a real-time link between the two. This third option allows us to operate two test specimens as a virtual vehicle, simulating system interactions and control strategies for example, while physically separating the test chambers to allow safe working such as installation or maintenance in one area while the other is utilised.
"What we have created is a state-of-the-art test capability which can make a genuinely positive impact in reducing vehicle development time and cost, and be digitally enabled to leverage the known benefits of virtual product development."
The centre was constructed, installed and commissioned during the global pandemic. What challenges did you face?
MB - "The global pandemic threw up huge challenges in terms of construction, installation and commissioning of the centre. The team – including Ricardo engineers and our external partners and suppliers – has done an incredible job stepping up to get this project completed in extremely challenging circumstances.
"The lockdowns and travel restrictions which have been in place during the global pandemic presented Ricardo with a challenge, and therefore an opportunity, in the way in which we have engaged with our customers. We have been able to support our customers throughout the period, by providing our Remote Testing Service for certification and development projects. This is a toolset that we have had at Ricardo for some time and it has proven to be invaluable in enabling our customers to maintain programme delivery at a critical phase such as certification.
"Mindful of the impacts of COVID-19 on our customers and with similar challenges on this project, we used the same remote support approach and as a result, the commissioning and acceptance process was rather different from usual. Engineers and technical experts from multiple suppliers have been supporting us remotely while in lockdown to complete the final stages of facility preparation, so Ricardo technicians and engineers have been engaged with the equipment and systems from a much earlier stage in the process. This has not only accelerated and enhanced our team’s learning, but has also resulted in much more collaborative, virtual teamwork between Ricardo test engineers and suppliers. The Electrified Propulsion Research Centre will continue to develop and enhance our remote testing capability, with the digital infrastructure in place to provide comprehensive data exchange, visualisation and collaboration."
What were the high points of the build?
MB - "The high points were at three key stages in the project. Firstly, we decided very early on in the project that we would perform pre-acceptance of the test automation system at our supplier’s facility, to ensure that our requirements were met early in the project and before we received delivery of equipment. We flew out to the supplier in Germany and completed the pre-acceptance tests, and this was when we physically saw the test hardware which would eventually be running in our own centre. The system was fully functional and arranged exactly as we had planned, even down to the location of control desks and electrical panels.
"The second highlight was when we prepared the space in our building at Shoreham Technical Centre, ready for the installation. Our feasibility study clearly indicated the overall benefits of adapting an existing building rather than creating the centre from scratch. Although that presented challenges, when we saw the space emerge from the early construction work, we could start to visualise the research centre in its final form. As we neared completion, when we saw the climatic chamber installed for the first time with the equipment fitted, we could really see the result of the decisions we had made, holding true to the design brief we had set ourselves. We had used Ricardo virtual reality extensively to define the facility: to optimise the layout, workflows and other operations. It was hugely satisfying to see this transformed into real life. It’s a very impressive facility with generous, useable spaces and it is certainly something to behold.
"Finally, the traditional ceremonial fire-up of a new facility with a commissioning vehicle is always a Champagne moment. However, because of the pandemic, our “first-fire” was very low key, with only a handful of people in the main control room: a couple of supplier commissioning engineers, a test engineer and members of the core project team. As a result, it felt much more intimate for those involved. It was a moment of quiet satisfaction that we had made it through all the challenges of the pandemic, and achieved what we had set out to do, but also that there was a new customer project to be getting on with, so there was no time to stand on ceremony!"
What are the key test capabilities of the new Electrified Propulsion Research Centre?
MB - "There were some important requirements that we wanted to meet when we designed the centre. We drew on the knowledge of our Ricardo Global Technical Experts, and our experience working with our global customer base to enable us to deliver the test capabilities and solutions which we believed our customers needed.
"Our dynamic, low-inertia dynamometers can achieve over 1MW of transient power absorption in a range of configurations. We can subject the unit under test, whether that is a vehicle or a powertrain system, to temperatures below -10 °C and in excess of 50 °C, including the option of external fluid conditioning when required, to meet or exceed the engineering requirements of our customers. Our battery simulation capabilities of up to 800KW at 1100V can accommodate very high performance EV powertrains. The test automation and control system can be fully integrated with a real-time simulation environment, in order to perform different dynamic scenarios to represent driver, transmission, vehicle characteristics, disturbances and interactions with the external environment.
"These are just some of the services we are already delivering or are actively engaged in:
- Full vehicle development programmes, optimisation of efficiency and energy usage
- Test and validation of fully electric drives for heavy duty vehicles
- Supporting a hypercar development programme
- Benchmarking of EVs
"We are already receiving a lot of interest from customers for future projects. The research centre is open for business now – we are already delivering a customer programme that relies on these unique capabilities."
What are you most proud of?
MB - "First and foremost, I’m most proud of and grateful for the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of the Ricardo team. This project has rewarded us with many long days and some sleepless nights, but we did it. In the early planning stages, we knew that the conventional way of placing a large order for a turnkey facility would not be optimal for us; we needed to leverage the specialist skills of system experts and work directly with them. The support that our partner suppliers have given us and the work they have done is incredible. There are too many to name and it would be unfair to miss any out, but they know who they are!"
What’s next for Ricardo in terms of test and development?
MB - "As a company, we have a vision to create a clean energy transport engineering centre of excellence comprising an integrated hydrogen test and development centre, together with the new Electrified Propulsion Research Centre and our existing Vehicle Emissions and Research Centre, which continues to be essential as one of the UK’s go-to facilities for vehicle test and certification. In the immediate short term, the Electrified Propulsion Research Centre has a pipeline of projects, including electrical powertrain testing. I am moving on to the design, construction, and installation of our new hydrogen test and development centre – building on the platform for our advanced powertrain engineering services capabilities that the Electrified Propulsion Research Centre has given us."
What difference will the Electrified Propulsion Research Centre offer to Ricardo customers?
MB - "Ricardo offers an end-to-end, seamless service that embraces software and simulation from concept through the product development process, incorporating physical test as an essential touchpoint at key stages. The research centre allows us to move effectively between the physical and virtual domains as we develop and optimise the architecture of the vehicle, the attributes, safety, performance and reliability. Where we need validation of simulation models we can physically test and provide robust validation data for those models.
"As the predictive models mature, we can validate full systems, which ultimately will allow us to complete a virtual product development cycle with greater speed and efficiency. If we look ahead to the future, the virtual process we undertake in our research centre will enable our customers to optimise the use of physical prototype vehicles. Ultimately, we could certify vehicles based on the virtual data, with models proven by physical test results. Both of those scenarios are still a very long way off, but during the pandemic, we have all had a glimpse of what technology, testing and development can do to help us achieve for our customers in terms of the potential for significantly reducing time, risk and cost for global product development programmes."