Collaboration stretches R&D resources

Danfoss' Application Development Center addresses industry demand on OEM research and development departments.

The resources needed to develop Tier 4 Final equipment, coupled with the resulting ‘electrification’ of off-road equipment, is straining many R&D budgets. The advanced electronics on many new off-road machines present many opportunities to increase machine productivity through innovative features, but engineering resources may be too taxed to explore many of the possibilities.

Hydraulics subsystems are one of the areas that can greatly benefit from the trend to advanced electronics, and Danfoss has positioned itself to help relieve OEMs fo their R&D constraints. The company has invested heavily in systems engineering capacity, control systems competency and machine integration processes that allow the company to partner with OEMs.

One of these investments has come in the form of the Application Development Centers (ADCs).  OEM Off-Highway recently visited the ADC in Ames, IA, to find out more.

“The idea here is to bring in customers to demonstrate what our products and systems can do,” says Eric Bretey, Manager, Advanced Systems Engineering, Danfoss Power Solutions. “It gets customers familiar with what we can do and builds application expertise and knowledge about the different types of machines companies are demanding.” This approach is much more hands-on than the PowerPoint presentations that used to be the staple of the industry. OEMs now want to see a demonstration of a technology versus a PowerPoint presentation.

“We have one customer who told us not to even bother with the PowerPoint presentation. Bring us something we can drive,” says Bretey. “You give the salesman a PowerPoint and sales data and it is okay, but there is nothing like having a customer here to try it."

The four-phase plan

The concept for the ADC really began around 2007 with the adoption of a four-phase plan. “When we started in 2007, all we had was about 23 acres of undeveloped grass in the back,” says Bretey. “We didn’t have any specific features. So if a customer called and said he was having a problem with a pump on a 15% grade, we would say we can try to make one. That is not a great answer to a customer who has a need right now. We realized that we needed to have some features already made.”

In 2011, Danfoss preceded to move about 90,000 cu. yds. of dirt, which resulted in one of the highest points in the county. Now there are grades ranging from 10 to 45%. “Then we defined a dirt digging area where we could go out with a trencher, excavator or backhoe,” says Bretey. A straightaway was also added in addition to a problem work area.

The concrete came next and now there is a long paved straightaway, a large cement pad with mooring for steering and mooring tests, and a couple of paved slopes, one with a low friction grip surface and an engineering area with garage space.

Danfoss has adapted to customer input during the construction of the ADC. “We have been doing this in phases and as we have been going along we have been learning,” says Bretey. “A lot of it is customer feedback and understanding the market needs. We spend a lot of time trying to understand this one picture of where the industry is going to be in five, 10 or 20 years.”

The ADCs serve needs across the globe, but each tries to focus on its core region. “Here in Ames we primarily support North and South America,” says Bretey. “We serve our global customers with operations all over the world. The way we oversee all of this and make sure it works together is we have a global conference committee that oversees and coordinates the high-level activities. Each one has a regional steering group. And all of our business groups, because there are several, collaborate on projects in each area.”

There are two other ADCs currently in development – one in Norberg, Denmark and the other in China near Shanghi. “Norberg and China are going through a similar process right now,” says Bretey. Actually, the ADC in Ames is taking a break from development this year since Danfoss is making investments in Norberg, Denmark.  “They have always had just a straight track with a turnaround at the end and a garage. Next they are putting in a high-speed oval with different entrances and exits to simulate what you would find on European roads. They will be able to do high-speed endurance testing there free from the hazards of traffic. China is currently planning to build a track. ”

Each ADC is going to have its own area of focus. “Here in the the United States it is mostly about dozers, sweepers, skid steers and lift equipment,” says Bretey. In Europe, where they drive equipment on the road at higher speeds, they focus on tractors, skid loaders and mobile cranes. In China the focus is primarily on mini-excavators, and transit mixers. “We see such explosive growth in that market.

“Since we launched the ADC concept two years ago, it has been useful for diagnostics, troubleshooting customer problems and research and development,” says Bretey.

Proof of concept

There are three different types of machines utilized at the Ames ADC. The first type is the engineering platform. “Some people call them engineering mules,” says Bretey. “They are not the prettiest.” But they are used to test the viability of cutting edge technology. They help the engineers develop and understand the technology.

Some of these cutting edge technologies will evolve as the associated software becomes stable and the bugs are worked out. These technologies are then implemented on marketing vehicles. Danfoss paints these machines in its colors and dresses them up for customers. “Customers can come in and drive these machines and see what we have to offer them.”

The third type of vehicles at the ADC are customer vehicles. Customers supply the vehicles to Danfoss to modify. First Danfoss will perform baseline testing on the stock vehicle. Then the company will modify the vehicle with its own technology and repeat the testing procedures. “We do that quite often. Just give us a vehicle and come back in six weeks.” By collecting its own data, Danfoss is able to offer unique insight to the manufacturer.

This saves the OEM from having to adapt the system and perform its own testing. Consider the gradability of a given machine. “Before we used software tools to estimate it,” says Bretey. “Now when a customer asks about gradability we can measure it much better. This engineering playground is very helpful to us. We put a solution on the machine, but we have to prove that it is better. So we do a lot of baseline testing.”

As you can imagine, communication is critical when trying to share information halfway around the world. The ADC facilities utilize web conferencing and telephone conferencing, but sharing large blocks of data proves challenging. “We always have the problem of how to move large sets of data,” says Bretey. “How do we visualize all of that data so that when we talk to someone we know they get it?"

The ADC allows engineers at OEMs to work closely with engineers at Danfoss. The end goal is to develop innovative solutions that can create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. “It is a lot like art working with vehicles,” Bretey notes. “There is a lot of collaboration with customers.” Trust between the OEMs and suppliers is critical in this environment. Collecting and sharing data on this level opens a new chapter in how suppliers and OEMs can work together to overcome daunting R&D challenges.