YEARS OF high investment costs, tougher manufacturer demands and increased competition are taking their toll on the engine management industry. Sooner or later, experts say, there will be a shakeout among suppliers of engine management units.
Suppliers are having to invest more money to stay competitive as manufacturers demand increasingly complex systems.
'The industry will inevitably face consolidation,' said Andy Dealtry, manager of powertrain control systems application for Visteon Automotive Systems. 'I don't think many companies in this market are making a lot of money. The returns do not justify the investment.'
Global overcapacity means there is little room for growth in overall demand for engine management systems. 'This market is very mature,' said Robin Randall, general manager of Siemens Automotive UK. 'It's very competitive, and getting more so.'
Companies are extremely guarded about discussing shares of the European engine management market - and some suggest pure market share figures can be misleading.
While some say European market leader Bosch's share has fallen in recent years, the company's emphasis on high value-added applications has increased turnover and margin per unit.
In the short term, Bosch clearly regards Siemens as the main threat. But it is also aware of the imminent challenge of Visteon as proprietor of the Ford Electronic Engine Control series, and an independent Delphi. Delphi's Luxemburg technical center now largely concentrates on engine management issues.
Twenty years ago it was enough to have the engine management unit take signals from six sensors and provide the triggering outputs to the fuel injectors and ignition, or the distributor. Today's engine management units may take information from 24 sensors. Aside from managing the fuel delivery and ignition roles, they control nearly every aspect of the modern car. Demands on the speed and accuracy of tomorrow's engine management units require big investment today.
It is clear how the industry will face these challenges, and adapt to succeed in the future, says Randall. 'The big suppliers are getting bigger. Global capability is becoming more important. Those who can reduce costs and integrate their systems will survive and succeed.
'Global suppliers who can deliver a pre-tested modular system, for example, will cut costs, improve their service, and win new business.'
Visteon's Dealtry agrees that suppliers of entire systems have an advantage: 'We can get into the root strengths and weaknesses of any part of the powertrain. This gives us a distinct advantage over smaller suppliers.'
A recent joint venture initiative with software experts Pi Technology has ensured that Visteon develops cutting-edge systems in the future. 'Visteon is not a software company,' says Dealtry, 'but software technology is the key to the future.'
Engine management suppliers are working on a wide range of new technologies. Future systems will probably control transmission-mounted motor generator units to smooth torque variation. A little further off is the possibility of individual electromagnetic valve actuation, which will substantially increase the load on engine management systems.
Meanwhile, the spread of 'drive by-wire' electronic throttle actuation is forcing suppliers to ask themselves: Why take the wire to the throttle and leave the engine management unit to operate reactively, when the wire could be taken direct to the engine management unit for faster and more flexible response?
Just as important are demands being made on the speed and accuracy of the engine management operation. By the standards of desktop computers, engine management units are short on clock speed and memory. The crucial aspect is the ability of the unit to process information and issue instructions in real time. This is why most modern engine management units have 16-bit processors - and some, such as Saab's Trionic, are 24-bit.
There are moves toward positive electronic control of cooling systems, to speed warm-up and control temperatures within each part of the engine. Special catalytic converter features, such as electric pre-heating, are overseen by the engine management unit. Diagnostic features have been extended to cater for emissions legislation.
To keep pace with emission limits, units will need to sample and calculate more frequently. The way in which the software is stored may also change, as the precalibrated maps on which engine management units currently depend give way to a simple electronic analog of the engine itself. This system will be faster to react and give more precise values.
Today's engine management units may have come a long way, but the road undoubtedly stretches far into the future.