To the highest standard
More often than not within the pages of Aftermarket, we will refer to the fact that the internal make-up of vehicles has changed greatly in recent years, and that the shift towards electrification is accelerating the process further. No one knows this more than companies making parts, be they OE, Tier One or going straight into the aftermarket.
Wanting to show the world more about the work that go into producing the EGR valves, air mass meters, exhaust pressure sensors and many other parts that they make, SMP Europe recently invited the press to take a peek inside their UK engineering centre in Nottinghamshire in order to shed some light on how their products go from an idea to being a physical item in the hand. With manufacturing taking place both at home and in Torun, Poland, the primary purpose for touring the UK site was to find out how the team take products from idea to prototype at as rapid a pace as is practical, get them tested and then get them into full production.
The company chose a good time to open the doors too, particularly when looking towards the EV side. With electric cars of all types becoming more common, garages are starting to think about the need to get parts, and realising that it is not easy. SMP Europe are already thinking in this direction, and they have even put in an EV garage on site for testing on the vehicle itself, but we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We will come to that later.
The tour began in the engineering department, where the various parts are designed, taking in the reality of the hardware itself – the key physical elements, and the firmware side, which many people would refer to as software. With many ideas on parts that could be produced by the company coming from the sales team that is out talking to the factors and garages, the first step is putting together the building blocks. Once the team have decided that a product will be both viable and profitable, they embark on their work towards producing a part. The part itself is designed just a desk away from where the firmware is written from scratch to do the job it needs to do. To enable this to happen, production designers and mechanical engineering designers sit side-by-side. On one side of the room, you have programming and circuits being designed, then on the other you have the casings being put together in CAD programmes where potential parts can be visualised and designed in 3D.
With just a connecting door to traverse, our next stop took us through to a clean workshop, where thanks to investment in 3D printing, the team are able to swiftly move from the design stage to a point where they can have an early prototype in their hands, which they can then begin to perform physical tests on, to see if what they have come up with is viable. From here we moved onto the machine room where circuit boards drawn by the human staff just a few metres away can be constructed by robots, and then finished via drying in a 12-stage oven. We then stepped through to the Validation Test Laboratory. “This is one of the most important areas in the factory,” said Engineering Manager John Wass, as it is where the team find out if what they are making actually works. This includes three thermal cycle ovens where products can be put through the stresses that both very low and very high temperatures will inflict. If that’s not tough enough, there is also a thermal shock chamber, and a pair of hot soak ovens a salt spray machine and an electromagnetic test unit, built especially for the company.
One of the last parts of the process is on-vehicle testing, and with this in mind we found ourselves in the on-site garage. The area is split between an internal combustion engine vehicle section and an EV area and even has a jukebox sourced from the local pub so the team have music while they work. Here they are able to try the parts in a real-world setting, with real-world stresses and strains as the parts would experience on the vehicle. Once a part has survived and successfully passed the prototype phase, they will ultimately end up in production, and eventually in real garages, with real mechanics. Once a part works, it can be put into production, and on the factory floor, parts are constructed, with many, such as air mass meters each being set, one-by-one. “Individual calibration is the only way,” John pointed out. “We have tried to find a way to set them all en masse, but there is no way of doing it.” Remember that when you order one in.
This is a tried-and-tested process that works well for the company, which in the last year alone has introduced a host of parts including ignition leads, NOx sensors, fuel vapour valves (FVVs) and much more. However, the company was keen to share its move towards providing EV parts for its customers.
It’s not an easy jump though. As SMP Europe Marketing Director Martin Turner observed, while they can get a product for an internal combustion engine vehicle from idea to production in around six to 12 months, with EV parts the situation is not quite the same: “At the moment, it is relatively early days. From an R&D side, we need more information on what components are failing.” As well as identifying parts that may need to be produced by SMP Europe, the team is working with experts in the EV field, such as garages in the HEVRA network, and notable names such as Matt Cleevely from Cleevely Garage, who are able to help them source hard-to-obtain donor parts for research. Once they have gotten hold of the parts and are able to study them, they can begin the process we have described here.
Of course, while parts from across the gamut of the EV parc, ranging from the humble Renault Zoe to the proprietorially data-obtuse output of Tesla are often drivetrain or even vehicle-specific, there is still a lot of cross-pollination from traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. Martin said: “We do have, as part of our core ranges, parts that are common across both ICE vehicles and electric as well, like wheel speed sensors and temperature sensors. It’s an ongoing project that our product management team are focusing on to maximise that offering as much as possible. We want to make sure that the garages and factors feel confident that if they have an electric vehicle come through, that they’re able to offer the parts that they need. This is where they’re trying to identify potential needs for the market and create the product to fit that need.”
Martin concluded: “It is a quite complicated process, but the message we want to get out to market is that that development is happening.”