GM banks on ISL for innovation
The Vehicle Health Management System (VHMS) will inform the driver about the vital informations of the car on his mobile phone, and will also take care of likely maintenance issues well in advance.
The VHMS, a condition monitoring system, will collect and analyze data from a plethora of sensors – in the engine, transmission, tyres, electricals – on a continuous basis and transmit them to the driver in the form of actionable alerts when it senses that any of these vehicle subsystems needs attention. General Motors will shortly extend its OnStar in-vehicle security, communications, and diagnostics system with prognostics capability in North America, and then introduce it progressively in Europe and then China, its second-largest market.
It may take a few years before condition monitoring makes it onto Chevy models in India, ironically the very place where the system is being developed, more specifically at GM’s India Science Laboratory (ISL) in Bangalore headed by director and chief scientist Dr Prakash Bharati. The ISL is one of two operational units at the GM Technical Centre (GMTC-I), the other being engineering.
Diagnosis and prognosis
Bharati is the corporation’s global technology leader for diagnosis and prognosis. He and his team of 120-plus, more than 80 percent of them PhDs, work on modeling a variety of systems and structures, physical phenomena, material behaviors, and processes, including business processes. The models they create are used for scientific studies as well as to build tools for use in various departments and divisions of the corporation. “In order to be able to do prognosis, you have to first construct comprehensive models of the individual systems that allow you to analyze data under different conditions. And you should also be able to model the entire system, encompassing all the automobile functions,” Bharati explains. The complexity of the task is evident from the fact that this involves the simulation not just of mechanical, electrical, electronic, fluid systems under the widest spectrum of temperature, speed, and load conditions possible in actual use but also of the interactions between these systems. In addition to vehicle health management, ISL also houses GM’s global centre of excellence for human body modeling. “This involves developing a full virtual model of the human body in all its glory – every bone, tissue, cartilage, organ – that can be used in simulation to understand, for example, the effect of a crash on the entire human body, which is not possible at all with crash test dummies,” Bharati declares.
The benefits of such a model extend far beyond its possible contribution to safer motoring; Bharati points out that it would make an invaluable tool for medical research, and admits that ISL is fully prepared to make it available for this purpose when it is ready.
GM has research into “12–14 key strategic technologies” ongoing at any time across the globe, Bharati says. At the present moment, these include “lean and agile manufacturing, powertrain, fuel cells, and lightweight materials.” The ISL has individual groups dedicated to supporting its R&D centers in the US and Israel, and the 12 engineering centers including GMTC-I, in the development of each of these technologies — except, of course, where it is supported by them in its lead role in VHMS, human body modeling, and smart materials modeling.
This lattermost is the third of a total of 25 centers of excellence situated at the ISL, according to Bharati. Here scientists work on characterizing and simulating the microstructures of lightweight materials – metals such as magnesium alloys, and composites – and “materials that sense their environment”, such as Ni-Ti shape memory alloys that can be used, for example, in a component as innocuous as a spring for a self-canceling turn indicator stalk that can replace a sophisticated, heavier, and more expensive, motorized mechanism.
Records of innovation
ISL has generated more than 150 “records of innovation” that have been published in international journals, Bharati reveals, adding in reply to a question that taking a patent on any of them would be a purely business decision. It has worked with competitors and vendors, and collaborated with national laboratories and academic institutions in India on 45 research projects so far.
“We have master agreements with eight CSIR labs including the Nonferrous Materials Technology Development Centre (NFTDC), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), and with all the IITs and IISc. We have 13 collaborative research laboratories throughout the world, two of them in India. The first is at IISc for materials science, and we are presently investing heavily in collaborative research into embedded software with IIT Kharagpur,” he elaborates.
In fact ISL invested Rs 5 crore already in the lab at IIT Kharagpur last year and the two are jointly developing an MTech curriculum in embedded systems that will cover, among other things, security and communications, diagnosis and prognosis, and validation and verification of software.
“ISL works on R&D issues related to control software engineering methods and tools that find application in different embedded systems used in automobiles like body/engine/chassis control modules, and also in real time distributed embedded safety-critical applications. The engineering group of GMTC works on implementation of such technologies in vehicle applications,” he adds.
Following the success of the ISL, GM’s first R&D lab outside the US, GM set up another in Israel last year, and is planning a third in China. “GM follows a decoupled development strategy according to which it is the R&D centres’ responsibility to keep the innovation pipeline full at all times. We are the front-end of innovation and it is our job to feed application-ready innovations into the pipeline, which engineering anywhere in the world will draw from to develop technologies that meet market requirements,” Bharati explains in conclusion.
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