Craig Diem

Craig Diem

BWI Group's MagneRide suspension systems are being increasingly featured in top end cars. In the EU they work on high end integration of chassis components with advanced control and sensory systems to produce vehicles that take safety, ride dynamics and sophistication to a new level. Conversely, BWI also work within the advancing Chinese market that sits in a very different end of the spectrum, where basic safety and control devices like ABS and ESC are just starting to take hold, and where AEB and autonomous driving are concepts reserved for the very top layer of the social elite who can afford to import EU and NA models. Matthew Beecham spoke to Craig Diem, BWI Group, Director - Strategic Planning about how the Group deals with the different challenges that these markets bring.

How is demand for vehicles with higher levels of handling and comfort shaping-up in China?

There is growing demand from consumers in China for improved comfort and handling throughout most of the automotive market, from compact cars all the way to luxury sedans. The increase in household disposable incomes in China has enabled many buyers to move up to larger cars, SUVs and crossovers but there is also still a growing market for low-priced entry level cars and MCVs. The buyers in that sector focuses more on overall value and practicality but many of them will, over time, move into market segments which offer more refined ride and handling. We have seen this pattern before in Europe, North America, Japan and Korea; the requirements of entry-level consumers eventually migrate towards higher levels of ride control and comfort. There will always be an entry-level market segment in every country and region, but over time the proportion of the total market that wants premium ride and handling grows to become the majority of that market.

What is your strategy in serving that demand? And could you draw on some examples of technology solutions developed for local markets?

BWI competes primarily in the premium suspension damper market globally, and the Chinese market is no exception. In China, we provide passive struts and shock absorbers manufactured at our plant in Fangshan (Beijing) for customers such as BMW, Audi, Volvo and Land Rover. We also provide MagneRide controlled dampers for some Cadillac models that are built in China, although those are imported from a BWI plant in North America.

Our customers always adapt their overall vehicle designs to meet the needs and desires of the Chinese consumer, and BWI also modifies its standard damper designs to match local requirements. For example, versions of standard sedans with longer wheelbases are popular with some consumers in China because they provide more room for rear seat passengers. The increase in chassis length and mass on such vehicles means that the rear dampers must be specially tuned to provide the level of comfort required, while still providing the handling characteristics of the particular vehicle brand. BWI has a wide range of piston and base valve designs, along with other design features, which can enhance the performance and comfort provided by the struts and dampers. We work alongside our vehicle manufacturer customers to choose specific valve designs and other features that provide the ride and handling characteristics expected by their target consumers.

While European drivers have long since enjoyed certain autonomous driving features, the Chinese market is catching up albeit gradually. How do you set about managing the different challenges that each market brings in the form of economic pressures, legislative requirements and technological differences?

We find that legislative/regulatory requirements and technical standards are converging in China, Europe, North America and in other countries that have a large automotive market, leading to fewer and fewer regional differences. Emission control standards are one example; a similar trend is occurring in controlled braking. ESC (braking stability control) has been almost universally adopted already in the EU, USA and Canada for example, while China's adoption of ABS and then ESC is accelerating and is expected to eventually approach the same high rates of usage. BWI's ABS and ESC products, manufactured at our Shanghai plant, are growing in sophistication to provide the features and capabilities that are being demanded by our OEM customers and the consumers who buy their vehicles. For example, our ESC must increasingly communicate and function with other systems (e.g., steering, engine, transmission, cruise control,) to enable the vehicle to behave in a safe and controlled manner.

Economic pressures are, in principal, the same in every region and market: BWI and all other suppliers always strive to win more business while vehicle manufacturers always attempt to obtain products which cost less and provide more functionality. Fluctuations in the price of commodities such as steel, aluminium, rubber, etc, affect everybody in the supply chain and every supplier must manage their business in such a way that products can be provided which meet customers' needs at a value point that benefits all parties. Unless everyone wins (supplier, vehicle manufacturer, consumer), no one wins in the long run.

Designing automotive technologies to meet the needs of different markets is a tough challenge. Could you explain how you set about understanding the many needs of drivers and passengers and how those needs vary between, say, China and Europe?

We work closely with the vehicle manufacturers to understand what consumers in each market want and to understand the design directions taken by each of our OEM customers on the vehicles they intend to offer to the various markets. For example, there are different ways to approach suspension system and overall chassis design to achieve the same desired result, whether ride and handling or braking performance, that will meet a particular market's needs. We might see manufacturer X choose a front MacPherson strut for their vehicle, but manufacturer Y chooses a double wishbone suspension design, yet they are both competing in the same market and pursuing the same consumers. Each of those designs drives the need for a different type of damper, so we must keep in mind the need to satisfy two customers: the vehicle manufacturer and the consumer.

As far as comparing consumers in China and Europe, there will probably always be regional differences in preferences for braking characteristics or ride and handling but, more importantly, those preferences change over time. It is up to suppliers and vehicle manufacturers to both anticipate those changes and ensure that suitable technologies will be developed and available to meet the emerging needs.

The car remains at the very heart of what people with rising incomes across the world want. As soon as they can afford it, people want to drive cars and they want the lifestyle that comes with car ownership. And for some Chinese consumers, that means a car bristling with European technology. Where do you see the Chinese market at in terms of safety and control devices - such as ABS and ESC - and how do you see it evolving?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE Global light vehicle OE shock absorbers market- forecasts to 2030

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