THE RELIANCE of carmakers on independent engine testers is such that 'if you took our industry away, some manufacturers would fall over tomorrow,' said John Thurston. He is chairman and chief executive of UK-based engine test company Tickford Ltd.
The carmakers 'would get back up again by recruiting our people,' he said, 'but they would fall over first.'
Faced with tougher emissions standards and tighter deadlines, even the biggest carmakers are short of the time, staff and the capacity to run the necessary r&d programs.
The UK, for example, has 18 specialist automotive engineering r&d companies that employ about 20,000 people. Their combined sales are $800 million a year, much of it devoted to engine development.
Unofficial industry estimates say the UK independent sector is worth much more, from $960 million to $1.6 billion annually.
Carmakers do much of their testing themselves. Ford, for example, has increased the number of engine test cells at its Dunton, UK, engineering center. The facility now has 91 cells, with a further 33 test rigs in Merkenich, Germany.
Yet Ford has not reduced its research programs with engine specialists, such as Cosworth and Ricardo.
'That is less to do with their expertise than with the sheer volume of work necessary for us to meet our targets,' said Ford spokesman Don Hume.
Ford will never hand responsibility for mainstream engine design to outside companies, he said.
A spokesman for GM Europe said the company uses 'contract partners who can either provide specialist expertise in certain areas, or who can assist when capacity constraints require outside support.'
The spokesman would not reveal the names of current contractors, but GM is known to have employed Cosworth and Lotus Engineering on previous projects.
Independent engine contractors have done well in the 1990s. Tickford has grown 40 percent per year over the past five years.
In Italy, a new engine test company, called Prototypio, was set up at the beginning of the year in Turin.
The company has won large contracts with Fiat and Iveco, said Commercial Director Giorgio Carmana.
'We are not very big,' said Carmana, but we believe there is a lot of work to do out there and we have set up the company because we are confident that we have a part to play.'
Prototypio employs about 100 engineering staff. Facilities include four test benches and acoustics- and vibration-testing chambers.
Carmana said Prototypio would also develop prototypes and do on-road testing.
Porsche AG, the sports carmaker's consultant engineering arm, has opened a satellite office in Bietigheim, Germany, to increase its capacity.
Porsche's main engineering center, in Weissach, Germany, is the German auto industry emissions test center. Every German carmaker test its cars at the center.
Porsche offers a wide range of engineering services, but as with other engine contractors, it is extremely secretive about its clients. These are known to have included Hyundai, AvtoVAZ and Volvo. The five-cylinder engine in the current S70/V70 was developed by Porsche.
Engine research programs are increasingly dominated by direct-injection technology. Half of Ricardo's r&d effort is directed toward high-speed diesel and gasoline direct injection, said Operations Director John Needham.
Ricardo is working on what he calls 'the Holy Grail - stratified-charge direct injection, which promises a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy plus up to 10 percent increase in power.'
'Gasoline and diesel direct-injection engines are now at the center of interest,' said Helmut List, chief executive of Austria-based AVL. 'We already had high competence in this field as we could link up with our long experience with direct-injection diesels.'
AVL List has frequently collaborated with Magna-Steyr Motoren-technik, formerly Steyr Farhzeugtechnik. While AVL has concentrated on testing engines and powertrains outside of the vehicle, Steyr has specialized in testing and adapting them to vehicles.
Steyr developed the low-noise M1 direct-injection turbodiesel for AvtoGAZ, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and will produce it until the carmaker's engine production capability rises sufficiently.
Steyr is currently adding five dynamometers and specialist test stands to its total of seven rigs.
New diesel convert
Despite its long involvement with Grand Prix racing and high-performance gasoline technology, Lotus Engineering recently has become heavily involved in diesel research.
'For years our interest was only in gasoline engines,' said David Taitt, head of powertrain engineering. 'But the people who work here have had 400 man-years of diesel experience in other companies before they came to Lotus. Our experience in lightweight design has more application to the weight burden carried by diesel than in any other automotive field.'
His department now employs 300 engineers. Sales from r&d have doubled over the last five years.
About 95 percent of Lotus Engineering's customers are non-UK, and 70 percent are European. The company had eight engine test cells in 1990, now it has 42.
Carmakers' 'demand for aggressive engine performance has softened,' said Alan Draper, assistant director of engineering at the UK's independent auto research organization MIRA. 'There is now heavy emphasis on that part of the combustion process which governs refinement, and particularly noise. Noise is the new problem area.'
Whatever the changes in the focus of technical development, one trend will continue: globalization.
'The whole business is now global,' said Thurston of Tickford. 'Within our specializations we are as good as the best vehicle manufacturer. We must be, otherwise we don't get the work. Information technology is the biggest single factor in our recent growth.'
Ricardo's Needham sees progress in another area: creating 'clubs' of manufacturers to share r&d expenses.
'Over the past four or five years we have got cleverer at pulling together these clubs, each a consortium of co-sponsors,' he said. 'Typically a club has around eight members, often from different countries, but the biggest has been 21 original equipment customers all sharing research costs on an equal basis.'
The specialist's brief is widening all the time, Thurston said.
Increasingly stringent emissions regulations, plus the need to improve fuel economy and vehicle driveability, are forcing carmakers into 'far greater interaction at a design and development level concerning emissions and engine performance.'
Why engine contractors are booming
Carmakers have insufficient capacity
Development cycles are shorter
Contractors have specialist skills
Contractors have low overheads
Engine test companies
AVL List GmbH, Graz, Austria
British Biceri Ltd, Slough, UK
Conort Engineering, Bromma, Italy
Cosworth Engineering Ltd., Northampton, UK
Dr.Ing h.c.F Porsche AG, Weissach, Germany
ERA Ltd., Hichin, UK
FEV Motortechnik GmbH, Aachen, Germany
IDIADA Applied Automotive Research, Santa Oliva, Spain
Ilmor Engineering Ltd., Brixworth, UK
Janspeed Engineering Ltd., Salisbury, UK
Le Motor Moderne, Palaiseau, France
Lotus Engineering Ltd., Hethel, UK
Magna-Steyr Motorentechnik, Steyr, Austria
Motortestcenter, Haninge, Sweden
NEL, Glasgow, UK
Varity Perkins Technology Ltd., Peterborough, UK
Prototypio, Turin, Italy
Ricardo Consulting Engineers Ltd., Shoreham, UK
Rototest AB, Ronninge, UK
Tickford Ltd., Milton Keynes, UK
Weslake Developments Ltd., East Sussex, UK