By mixing advanced internet technologies, computer networking and IT skills with state-of-the-art test engineering expertise, Ricardo has developed a system that holds the potential to transform the future of powertrain testing. Anthony Smith talks to the Ricardo team responsible for developing the Global Test Environment (GTE) and to some of the system’s first external users

The market pressures affecting powertrain testing are becoming increasingly intense. While quality and accuracy are naturally the starting point for any testing activity, cost and time constraints for the more standardised and readily automated forms of testing are ever more restrictive, with conditions approaching those of the spot market often determining closing price and choice of supplier.

Yet at the same time the needs of the more complex forms of testing, where the number of parameters under control and operating conditions simulated increases continually, are pushing up equipment and facility costs and increasing the requirement for specialist engineering supervision and intervention. Nevertheless, according to Ricardo director of test operations, Declan Allen, this is an environment in which opportunity abounds for those willing to innovate: “Many of the challenges faced in powertrain testing today are fundamental in nature and affect the inhouse OEM teams and independent suppliers in equal measure. In such a climate, it pays to look critically at our approach to testing as innovations here can provide significant advantages to customers.”

One such innovation developed by Allen’s team at Shoreham holds the prospect of changing the way in which engine testing is carried out by the industry as a whole. Termed the Global Test Environment (GTE), the system has been proven internally within Ricardo and is already part of the service provided to OEM customers. “We are constantly looking for ways in which we can add value to the testing service that we offer: to improve the effectiveness of our business and differentiate ourselves from the market,” explains Allen. “In discussing opportunities with the Ricardo group IT team we realised that some of the latest secure networking and internet technologies offered us some potentially very attractive opportunities. We asked ourselves, what if we developed a remote access system such that it provided everything test and development engineers typically require when visiting a powertrain test cell – the ability to interrogate test parameters, alter test conditions, monitor results, investigate problems – and even listen to the engine, take a look around the cell and examine individual components? If we could do all this and use a dedicated network link to connect the engineers’ own PCs to the cell, they would be able to use the test cell from a location anywhere on earth as effectively as they could from the office next door.”

Ricardo had been used to developing remote testing technology for some time. For example, remote access to the Task Data Manager (TDM) system had been used to great effect for the powertrain engineering team based at the Ricardo Midlands Technical Centre in post-processing test data from the test cells at the company’s engineering centre at Shoreham on the south coast, some 250km away away. In this case, however, the level of access required was to the test cell itself and in real ime rather than as a post-process operation. Development of GTE was an undertaking that would require more than just the skills of his test operations departments. “We needed to bring together a multi-disciplinary team comprising skills from the IT team in addition to test engineers and end users of our testing service in the product development departments.” explains Allen. “In this way we were able to develop GTE in a manner which maximises the advantages offered to us by the latest IT technologies, while at the same time providing a safe, secure and operationally effective test engineering environment.”

Potential advantages
To fully understand the benefits of GTE one first needs to understand the nature of test engineering today. Allen claims that the market for powertrain testing can be broadly segmented into two distinct niches – ‘standard’ P&E and durability work, and more advanced testing in support of calibration activity or research programmes. The more advanced forms of testing tend to be carried out in very close collaboration with the engineering teams. Not only do they tend to require the more highly transient cells and equipment such as high speed data acquisition, ECU controllers and combustion analysis systems, but they also require a significant interaction with expert staff whose time is very much in demand.

“On a major calibration programme, for example,” explains Allen, “there may be relatively few engineers at Ricardo or the customer who are able to analyse the full range of test results, interrogate the ECU and make modifications to the calibration in response. Their time tends to be very heavily in demand and if they have to make a special visit the programme risks delay and the cost of down-time of an advanced test facility; additionally, the opportunity to improve the calibration may be missed.”

For the less technically demanding durability and P&E testing, time and cost are major constraints – but much of the testing is in itself automated. While customers for this category of work do not require regular engineering access to the cell, it is of critical importance to investigate any failures or other potential sources of down-time as soon as they occur. For out-sourced test work (including any for which Ricardo or its competitors are responsible) investigation of problems identified in testing may often entail a long distance visit by the engineering staff in addition to the risk of programme delays.

But if GTE offers significant benefits to individual test programmes, the potential that it offers at a more strategic level for the organisation of test engineering operations by both Ricardo and its customers is even more impressive. “Testing is becoming a more complex, specialised and significantly more capital-intensive process than it was in previous years,” observes Allen. “There are real advantages to be had in organising testing on the basis of a small number of large centres of excellence rather than a larger number of less well equipped facilities.” In particular he cites the significant sharing of investment and overhead costs and the advantage of test engineering teams working together in an atmosphere of mutual learning and innovation. For customers, too, the presence in Ricardo of GTE-enabled test facilities may be weighed against the cost of, for example, the development of a new internal test facility.

Testing the Market
Having developed GTE, Ricardo demonstrated the system to a number of long standing engine test customers. Very rapidly, some of these customers became external users of the technology. One of the earliest users of GTE was Aston Martin, where Mike Beake, lead calibration engineer, recalls his initial reaction to the system. “My first and lasting impression of the GTE demonstration performed at Aston Martin was what appeared to be a totally robust and reliable system. Within a few minutes of his arrival, the visiting Ricardo engineer was able to configure one of our PCs and allow us access to the Ricardo test cell environment ready to view or assume full control”.

According to Beake, the advantages of GTE recognised by Allen and his team are also very applicable in an OEM environment. With testbed development work encompassing performance, emissions, economy as well as calibration, ownership is often split between the whole development team, with many decisions requiring the input of many disciplines. “GTE brings everyone together into one networked environment regardless of their location”, he notes.

Following early implementation of the system, Beake and his team now use GTE as a part of their engineering process. “This method of approach was crucial to us considering the complex technology utilised on the Aston Martin V8 Vantage engine, significantly reducing our test development time and costs.” As a member of a tightly-knit engineering team he also cites some very tangible advantages. “I can be in two places at once! I can view realtime testbed data, diagnose problems or even perform tests directly via GTE. Minutes later I can take the knowledge gained to a vehicle on a chassis dyno or test track”.

Further development
The initial external users of GTE are restricted to those customers who have been undertaking testbed programmes with Ricardo. For these OEMs, selected GTE-enabled cells are reassigned from the Ricardo internal network for the duration of the test programme, and the test facility operates as a part of the customer’s own computer network via a local secure hub.

For the next stage of GTE development some of the very latest and most advanced secure internet technologies are being applied to allow a comprehensive access control protocol, data encryption and internal security between customers. This is a major undertaking which will enable an internet-based implementation of GTE, thus greatly increasing the range of customers who are able to benefit from the flexibility and efficiency that the system can offer. In terms of the scope of application, the joint IT and test engineering team are also examining the extension of GT to application in transmission and vehicle test facilities as well as other aspects of the business.

But Allen envisages development going much further than this. “We have shown how effective GTE technology is in opening up our own test cells to remote use both within Ricardo and amongst our OEM customers. The operational benefits that we derive from this are likely to be equally as attractive if applied to the test facilities operated by our OEM customers. For this reason we will be examining how we can develop GTE in the form of a standard package of software, equipment and support that can be implemented at our customers’ own test facilities.”

The Ricardo Quarterly Review, RQ, is a publication prepared by Ricardo in association with TwoToneMedia.