The Tier 1 supplier seems to be in good stead to take on the future with several key projects in the pipeline.
The Tier 1 supplier seems to be in good stead to take on the future with several key projects in the pipeline. An application that a service technician can use to conduct vehicle diagnostics, digital radio, and TFT-based touchscreen devices are among the products that it will use to ride the technological wave expected in the near future.
The company, however, realises the need to stay grounded and not get far ahead of market sentiments. For instance, Bluetooth, a technology that has undergone several iterations and is available on almost every cellphone these days, has taken a long time to penetrate the passenger car segment. This lag in catching up could be due to a multitude of reasons, says R RajkumarSrinivasan, director – software operations, at Visteon Technical and Services Centre, Chennai. “The entire ecosystem and infrastructure should be there to support certain technologies. People need to understand the applications of technology too. Bluetooth has evolved too, from version 1.0 to 4.0 now. The standards have evolved and not having a common standard is always a problem. Once we get into common standards, there can be proper synchronisation,” he says.
Nevertheless, he is confident that it is a thing of the past and Visteon’s market research backs up this claim. Amit Jain, commercial director- electronics & interiors, adds: “We keep looking at what really attracts the market. Wi-Fi and Internet will definitely be there a few years from now and television is something that will surely interest rear seat passengers. Mobile apps for this are available even today.”
The omnipresent cost factor has also played its role in the tech and time lag, but the flip side is that a Bluetooth-compatible audio system now costs less than a third of what it used to five years ago and can only get cheaper in the future.
Expect car interiors to change drastically in the future, says A Viswanathan, country managing director, Visteon India. “When you see mega trends for the automotive industry in India, we’ll see colour TFTs becoming more prevalent, Bluetooth nearly a given, or a trend more towards Wi-Fi. CDs will be absent and infotainment systems with USB and Aux connectivity will take over. Navigation will become standard.”
OEMs loosen their wallets on electronics
Another interesting trend that brightens Visteon’s fortunes is that of vehicle OEMs choosing to spend the spare dollar on electronics. Viswanathan adds, “We’ll see a far larger amount of electronics in cars. Today with cost pressure being a more entry-level (A, B segment) criterion, the amount of electronics is far lesser than what is seen in a comparable car in the western world. They spend around $2,000 (Rs 1.10 lakh) on electronics in a car while we spend between $400 (Rs 22,136) and $500 (Rs 27,670). You will see this gap catch up very fast. But, as of today, cost seems to be a bigger hindrance.”
However, this is not a pattern endemic to vehicle electronics. “The HVAC controls for instance, historically, have had manual controls. We see 2014 as a time when they go completely electronic or turn into fully automatic climate control systems. For entry-level cars, going for fully automatic temperature controls for a vehicle in the Rs 3-4 lakh range is unheard of. But we see that trend completely changing – we see small cars definitely having them by 2014-15,” says Jain.
A Tier 1 supplier like Visteon, despite its technical backing, draws upon numerous sources to tap trends. There include market research reports, OEMs wishlists, consumer preferences and marketing teams’ agendas at both the OEM and Visteon. Visteon also engages in dynamic exercises to drive innovation.
“We participate in expos like the Unplugged Fest (UPF) and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where handset manufacturers, OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers come together. We test our products on their platforms immediately,” reveals Srinivasan.
The positives coming out of such collaboration have resulted in some very innovative products. Jain recalls an instance: “Most OEMs want white LED to illuminate their instrument clusters, but white is the most expensive LED. Our innovation team brainstormed and this led to a light pipe design wherein with one LED, it’s possible to illuminate an entire cluster, which would typically need five LEDs. That drastically reduces the cost, so OEs now get what they wish for with colours at a cost-effective price.”
Sometimes, Jain says, OEMs take this product development process for granted. Srinivasan adds, “These are what we call implicit requirements. Some functional requirements are stated and unless we capture them upstream in the process, we will end up spending a lot of money and time later. The trick is to spend a lot of time in the beginning to avoid overworking. OEMs are happy with the value we provide them. Gone are the days when we are given a sheet with a list. The process has now become collaborative. At the end, both of us want the vehicle to be successful and that is all that matters.” Jain continues with an example where a last-minute notification from an OEM sent his team into a tizzy. “While developing an entire product for an OEM, we were nearing completion stage when we found out that at the vehicle level, there was a stop-start system that would require the product to work when the voltage drops down from the normal 12 volts to 6 volts. Typically, all these systems are designed to work at 8 volts; when it goes below 8 volts, the system is designed to shut down and then recover. Being an infotainment system, you would not want to be at a traffic signal when the vehicle automatically cuts the engine and with it the music, or have a call disrupted over Bluetooth. We had no choice but to redesign the entire system to work at 6 volts, which is a completely different architecture.”
Software and hard mettle
Vehicle electronics are also getting increasingly software dependent and hardware independent. Simple equipment like the humble car radio are sapping processor speed and memory to meet the audio standards that consumers have come to expect as de rigueur.
“Earlier we used to do a hardware-intensive radio product operating at 32 MHz with 1MB memory. Now, the same product is more software-intensive and for working at 800 MHz or 1 GHz, the processing speed required is higher. This cuts down on hardware. The future will see the use of even quad-core processors. The memory footprint also has gone up. Earlier we used to do the entire audio system’s software within 1MB; now it takes around 128 MB or even 512 MB. It is very clear that software has a significant impact on these technologies,” admits Srinivasan.
Visteon’s robust innovation team is not just a motley bunch of boffins churning out ideas. The company uses all its staffers to source ideas. “We have ideation sessions that see the entire Visteon India team come together. Even employees from HVAC and interior body panels streams, people who have nothing to do with electronics, contribute. We work on what we call a 6D principle – Discover, Dream, Design, Develop, Dialogue and Deliver,” reveals Jain. Srinivasan adds, “Those ideas then go through the market test, OE test, consumer test, and value versus feature test after which we confirm this is something we could target for this particular customer.”
Visteon’s focus lies strongly on the Indian market. Jain says that about four years ago, the company did not make a single audio or infotainment system. “We made only mechanical and hybrid instrument clusters, no audio and climate control systems. At the time, we were in the business of making more and more instrument clusters. Today, electronics in India is very different. We have diversified into clusters, audio, climate heads and displays. Whatever Visteon has to offer in electronics across the world, we have that all in India. We have set up facilities and lines and hired the right people for this purpose,” he says.
Jain continues, “Our plant in Chennai has grown three-fold since 2009, from 25,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet now. We had one SMT (surface-mount technology) line, capable of making 200,000 instrument clusters. Today we have five such lines in place and two more are to be added soon. This has resulted in a five-fold increase in instrument clusters to 10,00,000 units today. While audio systems capacity has gone from zero to 250,000 today, climate heads capacity will reach 300,000 by 2014.”
There is also emphasis on making almost its entire platform scalable, or as Jain puts it, “feature- and future-proof.” He adds, “We’re currently working on an instrument cluster and climate head for the new Scorpio; we predict what the future will be when the vehicle is in production. We ensure that the microprocessors we choose have enough memory size protection; we leave at least 30 percent free to accommodate future demands. We will have some telltale warnings empty and unpopulated. That way, if the OE wants to add a new ECU or a warning light, we do not have to redesign the full instrument cluster.”
Some of Visteon’s recent projects have been a result of intense collaboration with its global centres. For instance, the information cluster for the popular American hybrid, the Fisker Karma, sees some contribution from the technical centre in Chennai which also helped develop the audio system for the Tata Nano.
To better the top-end is something that is best left to cost constraints. The real challenge lies in making the bottom-end of the spectrum cheaper. Srinivasan says that this is possible in the future. “We definitely see the display unit in the Nano becoming cheaper. But there will be a point when the cost can’t go down any more, but the features would increase at the same cost.”
Asked if there will ever be a time when users can upgrade their software versions on their car’s systems as is done with phones and computers, Srinivasan says that the option of such flexibility lies with the OEMs. He says, “Technologically, a user can do infinite things. There are things we have to consider like reliability, warranty, regulations. The OEM will naturally like to restrict that flexibility to a narrower range.”
Overall, it's apparent that Visteon's electronics development efforts are helping OEMs improve the driving experience – making it easier, more convenient and enjoyable for consumers to stay connected to their vehicles and the outside world. Also, its ability to keep pace with rapidly evolving consumer electronics and providing automakers with flexible solutions that allow for quick and easy feature upgrades will keep it connected with the growth curve.
WHAT’S COMING FROM VISTEON INDIA
Visteon displayed a range of automotive electronic innovations at the 2012 International CES, the world's largest consumer technology trade fair, held in Las Vegas in January. The highlight of the company's exhibit was a 'consumer experience' section showing how Visteon leverages its market and consumer insight to develop concepts that explore future consumer-relevant features to improve the driving experience. Among the concepts featured was a digital radio geared for the India market, vehicle diagnostics applications, a 'connected cockpit', wireless charging, and products with various levels of sophistication in human-machine interface (HMI).
India digital radio concept: With All India Radio aiming to do away with AM transmission and replace it with digital radio by 2017, Visteon has taken the first step in creating a product aimed at this service. This unit brings all the advantages of digital radio — like four programmes on one frequency, zero distortion, stereo and 5.1 surround sound, and electronic program guide — to the car’s cockpit.
Vehicle diagnostics application: This is a novel approach to monitor on-board diagnostics information from ECUs using Bluetooth. This unique interface allows the vehicle’s head units to interact with smartphones and tablets. The diagnostic services include fault codes, text warnings, self-test commands, data identifiers and routine controls.
Connected Cockpit Concept: Visteon’s connected car concept brings connectivity solutions into the infotainment head unit. Main features include enhanced UI with India theme experience, internet connectivity through USB modem and active screen replications.
The connected car unit uses high-end graphics and HMI capabilities with integrated connectivity features including iPod, USB, Wi-Fi, mobile phone synchronisation and internet access through USB modem.
Low-cost motorcycle rider information platform: Visteon’s low-cost motorcycle panel offers a ruggedised, compact and low weight motorcycle cluster that is designed to meet the needs of emerging markets. The cluster supports two gauges and up to 10 telltale signs. This cluster supports a fully digital display cluster and a combination of digital display and stepper gauge with smooth pointer movement, has excellent water resistance and resistance to high vibrations (up to 10G.)
HOW VISTEON INNOVATED FOR THE MAHINDRA XUV500
Despite product development times reducing in recent years, the norm for design, validation and final production of an infotainment system is currently around 18 months. Visteon, however, pulled off a blinder and put the infotainment system for the successful Mahindra XUV500 into production in less than nine months!
Amit Jain, commercial director — Electronics & Interiors, Visteon Automotive Systems India, reveals just how that was possible.
“We were nearing project completion for two different audio system when M&M gave us a mandate to make a navigation, colour TFT and DVD-based infotainment system, following leads from its marketing team. M&M came up with the theme of an HMI (human-machine interface).
"There were challenges: manufacturing the software-dominated product and getting the software content out. Getting the hardware and the product right was one challenge, where we had to test it, put it into production and tool it up. The others were tooling a PCB and passing all tests, going into production and having a manufacturing set up to make it.
"We airlifted complete SMT manufacturing lines from Europe and Japan. A total of 16 equipment were airlifted. Electronic components were hand-carried from China, Japan, Europe and Thailand to Chennai. The entire 25-strong development team worked 24x7, even on Sundays, along with the people at Mahindra Research Valley, M&M’s R&D ‘factory’ also located in Chennai. "It also helped that M&M gave us a free hand. Another challenge was to integrate maps from an external player — Mapmyindia — into our platform. This meant we needed a very robust platform which we used to develop Mahindra-specific applications, which we customised for the XUV. The acoustics were another challenge which one of our US-based engineers helped overcome. It was a well-planned global effort.
"Cutting down the time to market was possible largely because of the amount of innovation work we were already doing. Our innovation team, led by Y Sivakumar, had already worked on integrating MapmyIndia’s maps, even before there was a demand for it from a customer. We had already developed the required software, only integrating it to the XUV’s hardware was challenging. If we had to find a map supplier, develop hardware and put it into this when Mahindra came to us, it would not have been possible in this time. "We were ready with our platform. We had the advantage of being next to MRV where the actual development was happening. They gave us a couple of vehicles to test and do our work in, so we did not have to rush to MRV for every little thing. We used to rush downstairs, flash the software, take the feedback and come back up. It was a very collaborative effort.
"Whenever we see the XUV500 on the road, we feel very proud,” Jain signs off.
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