The modular research platform for components
Automotive-sector | mobility of the future | In automobile construction, the future belongs to fast, agile development processes. The Modular Research Platform enables new chassis components to be tested at an early stage.
The roller door opens with a gentle rattling sound. Fresh mountain air pours into the shop. Carlo Miano checks the battery connections once more, and then opens the cockpit’s safety bar, climbs into the driver’s seat and switches on the motors. The test vehicle starts moving with a soft hum. This ride is a breezy pleasure, since the vehicle has neither a body nor a windshield. It’s thyssenkrupp’s new research platform for automotive components.
For the Modular Research Platform (MRP), project manager Carlo Miano (right) and Kristof Polmans, Head of Technology and Innovation, work together with colleagues from eleven nations.
More than a module kit
At first glance, the Modular Research Platform (MRP) is reminiscent of an outsized Lego automobile. “Our vehicle actually is assembled from components, like something built with Lego. Thanks to this construction principle, we are able to replace parts of the chassis, such as the steering, brakes, or dampers, in just a few minutes,” explains project leader Miano as he waits outside the shop for his co-driver to get in and the laptop to be started up.
Miano pulls the zipper of his jacket up as far as it will go. The test drive at the thyssenkrupp site in Liechtenstein can commence. It is a cool morning, and the sun is only now rising over the snow-covered mountains surrounding the principality. The MRP vehicle drives around the shop and disappears behind the office building.
With Carlo Miano behind the wheel and Leonard Lapis in the passenger seat, the MRP is doing countless test laps. Thanks to the modular “Lego” design, engineers can replace individual chassis components, such as steering, brakes or dampers, in the shortest possible time and flexibly test their interactions.
There, on the second floor, is Kristof Polmans’ office. “Head of Technology and Innovation” is what it says on his business card, but this trained mechanical engineer pays no attention to titles and functions. “We are all on first-name terms,” he says. He is Belgian, and for three years he has led an international development team in which eleven nationalities work together. The common language is English – and sometimes also German, Italian, or Hungarian
Research platform for the car of the future
“Our aim is to develop the chassis technology of the future,” Polmans says. The automobile industry today is facing great challenges, he explains, as eMobility and autonomous driving are making new mobility concepts possible – from robot taxis to e-car sharing. “There will be new technologies and business models, but no one yet knows what they will look like and which of them will prevail in the marketplace,” he says. “For suppliers, this means they will have to be able to devise a large range of technical solutions and to provide them at short notice. That cannot be done by traditional development methods – we need fast, agile processes.”
Early tests without prototypes
To accelerate the development of chassis components, Polmans’ team devised the Modular Research Platform. It enables parts to be tested under real-life conditions at a very early stage of development. This saves time, as in the past it was necessary to wait until a prototype could be integrated into an existing vehicle. Also, the MRP enables interactions between different chassis components to be examined as early as the development stage.
The focus of research work in Liechtenstein is on steering systems. thyssenkrupp is the world’s biggest supplier of steering shafts and columns and one of the top five manufacturers of complete steering systems. However, the company is also seeking to use the new, agile testing process in the long term to demonstrate its expertise as a chassis developer.
Live analysis via laptop
For now, though, the agile development technology is itself in the testing phase. The MRP vehicle was completed only a few months ago. Since then, the team have been working on putting the individual systems into operation. For the first trials, the Modular Research Platform was fitted with traditional components: a mechanical steering gear, passive dampers, two electric motors for the individual drive of the front wheels, and one more for the rear axle.
While Carlo Miano drives around the site, dozens of sensors constantly measure a number of parameters, including speed, acceleration in different directions, yaw rate, wheel speed, and steering wheel angle. All the information is sent to an on-board computer the size of a shoebox, the “autobox,” which is attached to the center console. On the screen of the connected laptop, Leonard Lapis, the project member in charge of the development of the control systems, is able to follow the ups and downs of the measurement curves live while the vehicle is on the move.
Leonardo Lapis takes the passenger seat of the Modular Research Platform. While driving, the control developer can follow all information on speed, steering wheel angle and other aspects live on the screen of his laptop
The autobox contains the mobile test platform’s intelligence. This is where the data from the sensors are processed by specially developed software. On the basis of the measured values, the system can at any time calculate the optimum commands for the actuators – e.g. for the brakes, the steering, the powertrain and the dampers. The engineers like to compare the autobox to the brain of an octopus: it is the place where the information that the tentacles gather during their movements is pulled together. Each tentacle is theoretically independent, but the coordination is controlled centrally. This control is extremely flexible: an octopus has no problem in making up for the loss of one tentacle. The software in the MRP’s on-board computer is intended to do something similar, by controlling the components in such a way that they complement and support one another.
This is important for example in the development of driver assistance systems or steering systems for autonomous driving. Such systems have to be 100 percent safe, even if one of the components fails. The steer-by-wire technology developed by thyssenkrupp, in which the traditional mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the vehicle’s wheels is replaced by electric cables, needs a backup solution in case data transfer is interrupted while the vehicle is in motion, for example. Here, the idea is that the software will intervene by specifically controlling the wheels’ powertrains and brakes so that they take over the steering function. “To develop such technologies in the past, you needed test vehicles, and that was complicated and expensive,” Polmans says. “With the new, modular MRP test vehicle, we can now test such integrated functions more quickly and cheaply.”
It is not only traditional electric steering systems, where both wheels are steered together, that thyssenkrupp can test by the mobile platform. In the coming months, the engineers plan to incorporate a very flexible single-wheel steering system. They have developed the prototype in collaboration with scientists at the nearby Buchs University of Applied Sciences. It can turn wheels through up to 90 degrees, so that parking or driving around tight bends becomes child’s play.
Adjusting to meet customer wishes
The test drive is over. Carlo Miano drives the MRP vehicle into the shop. He switches off the electric motors and fills out the test report. How does he rate the steering properties, the handling and the driving experience generally? Meanwhile, Leonard Lapis stores the data on his laptop. He will evaluate the results later today: “It is important to capture both objective and subjective information if we want not only to improve driving dynamics and safety in dangerous situations but also to enhance comfort for occupants,” he says.
For now, the MRP team is focusing on the development of new steering systems. However, the big goal for the future is set: to develop the technology for the chassis of the future.
All three factors are crucial in the development of new mobility concepts: autonomously driven robot taxis, for example, will become established only if they can deliver their passengers to their destination in safety and comfort, Kristof Polmans explains: “A key part is played here by the development and control of chassis components – for instance, active damping systems that deaden the impact of potholes or prevent the vehicle leaning too heavily into a bend,” he says. “With the Modular Research Platform, we are able to not only capture this interplay but also adjust it to meet customer wishes.”