The APC and IAAPS convene experts to debate the future of Digital Powertrain Engineering

Photo of IAAPS team members taking part in a research workshop

Powertrain developers ‘miles away’ from having the digital tools they need, reveals industry workshop

  • Pitiful shortage of skills to accelerate digital engineering
  • Vehicle complexity is developing faster than the tools we need to deliver the solutions
  • Leadership culture must change

Powertrain developers are ‘miles away’ from having the digital tools they need to meet intense cost and timescale pressures, a recent industry workshop revealed. Constrained by traditional approaches that replicate physical testing, engineers are missing opportunities to accelerate programmes, enhance decision making and achieve more with less.

These are the conclusions of a workshop organised by Professor Chris Brace, academic director of The University of Bath’s new £70 million Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems. Coordinated jointly with the UK government’s Institute for Digital Engineering, the workshop brought together 24 specialists from a mix of vehicle manufacturers, Tier 1 technology suppliers, consultants, innovators and academia.

“A full day of discussion revealed not only that many of the tools are not even in development, but that organisational silos and cultural lethargy are preventing a strategy that will deliver them,” states Professor Brace. “As we come out of lockdown, industry needs these tools to address increasingly fragmented powertrain strategies within very tight resources.”

Shift from validation to decision support

The biggest block to a new way of approaching digital tools was thought to be historic functional silos, most notably physical test operations focussed on validation without a significant role in the development or calibration of digital tools. Professor Brace gave real-world failure modes as an example. “The data is being generated every day, but too little is being used to support digital engineering,” he explains. “We need to bring physical and virtual testing together so that they support each other.”

Delegates also highlighted that digital engineering tools rarely extend beyond individual systems. “Take systems integration, one of the major trends in powertrain electrification,” says Brace. “There are a lot of complex interaction to be analysed when making strategy decisions, but there are no widely available tools for decision support,” he continues. “Some specialist consultancies have developed proprietary analysis tools, but there is little compatibility so opportunities for joined-up working with industry partners cannot be exploited.”

“At IAAPS, we see increased collaboration between companies of all sizes as critical for the new, resource-constrained future. Digital tools are a critical enabler for this strategy,” he continues. “The workshop has renewed our belief in changing cultures, teaching new skills and facilitating system-level collaborations.”

When IAAPS opens in 2021, it will be the first Institution in the UK to be designed specifically to develop the tools and skills needed for this new way of working. As well as teaching and research, it will work with global specialists to accelerate the development of digital engineering and with companies of all sizes to facilitate more efficient innovation.

Can we eliminate physical testing?

IAAPS chief engineer Rob Oliver believes we will never eliminate physical testing. “The delegates agreed that technology is evolving too quickly to keep simulation sufficiently far ahead of technology developments,” he explains. “New battery chemistries are a great example. In other areas, like combustion, we are years from having enough computing power and enough fidelity in the algorithms and calibrations.”

Oliver says that paradoxically, accelerating the application of digital engineering needs a realistic understanding of the technique’s limitations and a strong focus on physical testing to explore and resolve areas of poor correlation. “The strategy must be implemented at a senior level, where departmental cultures can be changed,” he comments. “The workshop opened with many delegates expecting to conclude that simulation technology is the roadblock, but we finished by concluding it is the culture and hence the leadership that needs to change first.”

As leader of the ‘Thermal Propulsion Systems – Systems Efficiency Spoke’ with the UK Government’s Automotive Propulsion Centre, The University of Bath will use the results of the workshop to build a development roadmap, together with industry partners. “Bringing companies of all sizes together to develop a faster, more-efficient way of working is central to the IAAPS mission,” concludes Professor Brace.