Innovations Keep Ashok Leyland InThe Forefront

Indian automotive industry is BS-IV compliant since April 2017. Now the industry is working on BS-VI emission norms, to be effective from April 2020. While most of the vehicle makers adopted the SCR technology to comply with the BS-IV norm, Ashok Leyland developed iEGR, which the company claims is more cost-effective. Will Ashok Leyland replicate this technology for BS-VI also? “Our BS-VI solution will definitely be different from others as we get the engines in-house and I have the flexibility to play around,”
Seshu Bhagavathula, Chief Technical Officer, Ashok Leyland , told T Murrali of AutoParts Asia, in an exclusive interview. Edited excerpts:

Q: Integrating various systems into a vehicle is a big challenge. How does Ashok Leyland tackle this issue?

A: For BS-IV we sent lots of vehicles out there with our own drivers. They drove BS-III vehicles next to BS-IV, and did the same things for us to compare. We made an important algorithm that picked up the best places in the country from where all the duty cycles were possible, from Rajasthan to Kerala, Shimla, Assam and Meghalaya. The trucks travelled thousands of kilometres and we collected all the data for the analysis. We compared everything and identified issues that cropped up. We narrowed them all down to different failure modes that could occur. Sometimes we missed certain things but we picked them up again from the field as fast as was possible. That was how Ashok Leyland performed and we are very confident of our products today from what we were 10 years ago. We focus on how we can help the driver very fast, a characteristic of our organisational maturity.

Q: Next to vehicle integration what really helps a company is standardisation and the economies of scale. It is not only on systems and modules but also on the development process itself. Your views?

A: Ashok Leyland is going through a transformation. In Europe three big long-term initiatives have been taken on standardisation across the bus and trucks called MQB (Modular Cross Modules, in German) or MLB and so on. There are 21 brands over 100 platforms; they share the concept, architecture and parts. They can mix different brands out of the same architecture which is what we do as well; we have 700 varieties of trucks running today, all different from one another. This is the DNA or soul of AL – to offer always customer-specific trucks and buses; we can always standardise within our architecture. Vehicle makers will be able to offer more variants in future with less number of parts. When there are fewer parts, reliability goes up and we can have better relationships with the suppliers.

Q: Will this help AL consolidate its suppliers?

A: In general, we could. The quality of the supplier will go up in future because the relationship will start much earlier than today. In a modular programme the R&D and advanced engineering give us aggregates for all solutions. So we can pick up combinations and industrialise whenever required; this means faster reaction to the market. That’s what we do.

Q: You had mentioned about vehicles for different kinds of roads. It is said that SCR will help longer drives at constant speed. Will the new roads and express ways hamper the prospects of iEGR, which Ashok Leyland developed to achieve BS-IV ?

A: Let me tell you something about iEGR. To reduce emissions like NOX you have EGR and SCR or a combination, which with DPF will achieve BS-VI. Our EGR combined with the optimisation we have done with in-cylinder combustion is iEGR; we have got rid of POC. So it’s intelligence plus EGR; this is fundamentally our patent. Normal EGR requires 20 percent to do back but we only use 10 to 11 percent. If I can reduce the droplet size in the injection nozzles of the combustion chamber from nanometres to picometres my efficiency will go up by 15 percent.

Q: Will not the fuel quality affect injectors?

A: Of course it will; that’s where you will have to compromise. The patent is not on EGR, but the combustion; we generate fewer particles at the origin itself. Since I get the engines from my own department I have the flexibility to play around, so our BS-VI will definitely be different from others. In EGR, you have a valve, cooler and some pipes. You optimise the valve and cooler and it’s all over; you have nothing much to do, unless you address at the source. That is the key.

Q: You said you are developing vehicles for all kinds of roads. The challenge for Indian vehicle manufacturers is much more than for their European counterparts. When you do this, there is always a trade-off. You have to compromise at one place to achieve something at the other. How do you do it?

A: What you do is optimise based on the application. In the case of long hauls, if the road is bad you optimise for 90 percent. Tippers, on the other hand, generallystay put at one place and work. So the applications are different. You will have to fine-tune depending on the application taken. Where we will have an issue is when people mix up the applications. What we can do is educate our users but as time passes we will also master the drive dynamics in such a way that we will have adaptive systems. We are not yet there; I can do it today but it’s too expensive. In AMTs, our R&D labs are at least two to four years ahead of the market.

Q: How does exchange of ideas with your other companies help you optimise for the global market?

A: Consider, for example, Optare with very light-weight buses (aluminium body and monocoque), which is very good at using electrical technology for them. We get a lot of information from Optare on how to optimise electric vehicles for light-weight buses. We sometimes buy batteries and controllers from them and leverage with our R&D and best practices available. It makes business sense. Similarly, for SCR systems it is Albonair.

Q: You want to be present in all segments of the pyramid; what you cater to at the bottom is exactly opposite to what you do at the top or the premium segment. Is this not diluting your focus?

A: The market is thin at the top and bulky at the bottom. My problem is that they are all there at the same time. I have to be there for all of them all the time. You will see more representation for AL in the premium segment in future but at a higher cost. We cannot sell too many units but I don’t want to lose that business. It will certainly dilute my attention but there is no other way. This means you will have departments working at the premium, mid-level and normal levels.

Q: Do you see the boundaries getting blurred gradually?

A: Yes, gradually. There is a shift to higher horse power; for the same 49 tonne truck I might require 225 HP in future. Change is happening with rated loads coming in, full body with a/c; naturally, it all influences my design. One of the biggest things for me is the shift of 180-190 HP to 220 HP and above; 90 percent of my vehicles today run in this range so our N-series engines will play a bigger role than the H-series in future; they will all go up in HP. For optimisation, I feel chances are better since we have our own engines. We keep doing research all the time; strategically we have an advantage.

Q: There are some other technologies like Opposed-piston that are coming in a big way where they claim that without EGR and SCR or other paraphernalia in after-treatment they can achieve BS-IV or BS-VI. Do you agree and what is your experience?

A: Theoretically, yes but practically, no. Today, on a world average of thermal efficiency, engines are only 40 percent thermal efficient. It is impossible to make an engine with no after-treatment. The material technology has to become 60 percent better than what it is today, otherwise the costs are prohibitive. Friction has to be zero to achieve very high efficiencies. That is not practically possible but on paper it can be done – theoretically. With Euro-6, engines will improve quite a bit, and after-treatment will reduce or come down. That is where we are concentrating.

Q: ADAS has caught everybody’s fancy but it depends upon its adaptability to market conditions. Where does AL fit in, in this phase?

A: ADAS has four stages. First one is just to warn the driver, second is partiallydoing some jobs of the driver, third is to take over most of the things the driver does and the fourth is fully autonomous, where you do not need the driver – he is free to do other things like filling in applications, writing cheques and doing other office work, sitting on his seat.

Q: Can you clarify ADAS vis-à-vis SAE level-5 of autonomous driving?

A: ADAS is generally for the second and third levels; we are working on all of them. As the Indian market goes from unorganised to organised, you will move from simple warning systems to advanced warning systems. For example, if the driver is drowsy he hears an alarm bell; if he continues like that the system will either apply partial brake or, in future, take over the steering for 30 seconds. Take the mining industry where drivers face difficult working conditions; there is already a market for guided vehicles there – it’s a push market. India will soon catch up in this sector also.

Q: What are your opportunities to leverage Internet of Things?

A: Vehicle to infrastructure (backend) is one; the other is vehicle to vehicle. Infrastructure relates to traffic lights and signs, and the service centre. IoT comes in for the supply chain getting connected to the work in progress, the movement of goods inside the factory and optimising themselves based on make-to-order coming in. This will take very long as it requires lots of changes in all the capital equipment but we will do it gradually. What we begin to do is to make the peripheral parts internet capable and then slowly go into the factories.
For us IoT has already started in R&D; an example is driver assistance systems. The change that is happening in AL is fascinating because we talk in the customer’s language. ‘Aapkijeet, hamarijeet’ is really the DNA of this company. It is all about getting the goods at the right time with the driver still feeling happy. Then I look at what the fleet owner is willing to pay and accordingly give him the necessary solutions. A simple warning system or applying half brake; we prepare the brake so much that the time lag is reduced. In some cases we might have to take over braking from the driver but it’s going to be very expensive.

Q: Your views on Industry-4.0; how is it relevant for India?

A: You have a factory, R&D departments, inbound logistics, work in progress, outbound logistics to customers and the supply chain with suppliers all over the place. You first start optimising transport inbound logistics, work in progress and outbound logistics. Ultimately you go in to robot talking to robot, robot talking to part. For Audi and Daimler, 50kms before the supplier trucks come into the factory they talk to one another. That’s how the gate passes are all done, well in time before the trucks approach the gate; two km before the truck comes in the driver also gets information on where to park and how long he will have to wait. This is Industry 4.0 in today’s form but people are already talking of 5.0 where factories here and abroad are optimising themselves right from the made-to-order stage itself.
AL has already taken the first steps but the degree of 4.0 we can do – the applications – will depend upon the amount of money we have to invest. We have a modular business programme with less number of parts offering more variants and optimising products by sharing of components. This is the beginning of 4.0 company-wide; we start optimising what is outside the factory initially.

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