Switzerland - a centre of motorsports and technology transfer excellence

Automotive Purchasing and Supply Chain’s Simon Duval Smith recently visited Switzerland as a guest of the Ambassador of Switzerland to the UK, Alexandre Fasel and his team for its Mission to Switzerland: Performance Engineering and Motorsports tour of universities, suppliers, an exclusive view behind the scenes at Sauber Group Formula 1, rounding off with a visit to the FIA headquarters in Geneva

The visit started with presentations at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich - Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (EHTZ), a testament to Switzerland’s extraordinary commitment to nurturing groundbreaking research and development by young engineers and innovators. EHTZ nurtures some 25 startups each year, and 95% of those born in 2018 are still thriving.

Electrifying composite structures

After an introduction to the Composite Materials and Adaptive Structures Laboratory by Professor Ermanni, Dr. Gerald Kress spoke exploiting the qualities of composites to form high strength structures. He talked of the crossover from aerospace to vehicles, using a ‘morphing’ wing construction as an example. The method of construction uses the innate strength and stiffness of a composite lay-up in one dimension but allows the structure a degree of controlled flexibility in another dimension, changing shape under various pressure situations.

He spoke of the use of additive manufacturing in the composite sphere and noted that the two technologies go together extremely well. Dr. Gress went on to talk of electro-active composite structures, that can change their material behaviour when subject to an electric charge, electro-bonded laminates with piezo-electric devices that are electrically ‘adjustable’.

He showed slides on speeding production of high performance composite parts, talking of Liquid Composite Moulding (LCM), virtual modelling of complex impregnation and curing processes that can be more quickly adjusted and modified.

Dr. Gress rounded off his presentation with a description of a truly groundbreaking process; the mouldless manufacturing of CFRP shell structures - an alternative to additive manufacturing for single-curve components whose shapes require undercuts, a process that uses the temperature-curvature effects of unsymmetric laminates.

New generation powertrain and tech transfer

There followed a fascinating dual presentation by Camillo Balerna and Pohl Duhr, two PHD students at EHTZ who showed a hybrid electric Formula 1 powertrain and discussed the rules of the FIA and other sporting bodies on energy storage, in fuel quality and battery size per lap. 

Balerna showed how this balance was expressed by a 3D convex mathematical model of optimisation. Pohl Duhr talked of ‘look up’ tables produced for showing the optimal control policy of how much and where on a typical qualifying or racing lap that electric power and regenerative braking should be used and explained how energy management must be used in real time to obtain the best results. He went on to show the extensive modelling and results of non-linear simulator of electric energy usage in qualifying and race laps in a Formula 1 race car.

Duhr said that, “Much of this convex optimisation approach is used by our colleagues working on road vehicles to optimise fuel and electric energy usage. This optimisation model is very transferable to road cars.”

Formula Student has been a fertile incubator for some of the best engineers working in motorsports and EHTZ has a lively programme in this field, as Dr. Jörg Heingärtner of the Institute of Virtual Production noted, “I am very excited by the students’ moves towards new mobility and EV technology, our latest Formula Student has 50hp from in-hub motors weighing just 2.8 kilogrammes each, motors that are completely made by the institute’s students.” He showed several aerodynamic simulations and noted that the students run some 1,400 simulations per year. Further information about the ETHZ Formula Student Team: http://electric.amzracing.ch/en/team/2019

A symposium at Sauber

Our party then moved on to the Sauber Group’s headquarters in Hinwil, near to Zurich, for an Export and collaboration Symposium, moderated by the very knowledgeable Ambassador of Switzerland to the UK, Alexandre Fasel. The panel of experts was made up of (pictured left to right) Adrian Goodsell, Managing Director of Racetech Motorsports Engineering UK, David Lapworth, Chairman of the Motorsports Technical Committee, Mario IIlien, co-founder of UK-based Formula 1 engine maker Ilmor, and Axel Kruse, Chief Operating Officer of the Sauber Group who started their discussions prompted by a question from Alexandre Fasel: “How was the UK motorsport ecosystem created and how why does it work so well?” Adrian Goodsell responded with a historical reference, “There were a lot aircraft engineers looking for work after the war, they worked with the entrepreneurs of the time to form small - some have grown to be very large of course - and highly skilled engineering companies, centering around what is now known as the motorsport valley in the Midlands, or centre, of the UK.”

The panel’s view was that Germany was more corporate in its approach to small businesses in comparison to the UK, as Mario Illien of Ilmor said: “It was a geographical decision for us at Ilmor; Paul Morgan and I were at Cosworth and we simply did not want to move too far when we started Ilmor and also the UK was a great place to start what was then a small business. It is a good country for what we now call startups as you can build and expand your site with much more help from the local authorities than in some other European countries.”

Academia and engineers

Alexandre Fasel then asked the panel: “Who is driving innovation and development in the UK motorsport valley - is it OEMs, tier suppliers or academia?” Goodsell championed universities and colleges saying, “Academia has been very strong in the UK, there are now so many more vehicle and particularly motorsport engineering degree courses on offer to school leavers than in the past.” David Lapworth said that there was an element of development over invention in motorsport engineering, “Motorsport is not so much about inventing things but more about adapting some great inventions coming from academia and from OEMs.” Axel Kruse agreed, saying, “In the motorsport world we are good at accelerating the development of existing technology into super high-performance solutions to the challenge of going faster for longer, and doing it reliably.”

Mario Illien spoke of his preference for young engineers with good general engineering qualifications, not necessarily in motorsport engineering: “I like to be able to mould an engineer into the Ilmor frame of mind, without him or her having any preconceptions about the way they have learnt to build a race car. Saying that, I am a big fan of Formula Student because it makes these young people think of solutions for themselves, and they come up with some radical and unconventional ideas. We (at Ilmor) like the Uk as we get engineers from other UK motorsport companies and they don’t have to move too far to come to us; unfortunately Switzerland is a lot further away!”

This almost incestuous concentration of great engineers has one drawback as David Lapworth remarked: “In the UK a secret technology development does not stay secret for very long due to the small size of the motorsport ‘triangle’, engineers are often quite gregarious and can let things slip out to competitors!”

Technology crossover and drive for exports

Fasel then posed the question: “Out of motorsport, marine, aerospace and medical device technology, which is the most powerful and high-tech?” Axel Kruse said that while Sauber does contribute technology and production facilities and expertise to medical and other specialised industries, “We are expensive and and while there are suppliers working for us who can lower their costs to suit other fields, at Sauber we would have to re-align our business to keep costs competitive and this could lead to a dilution of our strict quality standards.”

On the subject of suppliers, I asked Illien what suppliers need to do to win business with a company like Ilmor? He said that his, and other technical teams are very responsive to new technology from new (to them) suppliers, “They need to show us their tech, show it our engineers. We are very different from an OEM as our most of our purchasing decision-makers are engineers.” Turning to opportunities for Swiss suppliers, he said, “I am sure there are a lot of great opportunities in all race teams for Swiss suppliers and they [the Swiss companies] should try to export more to the US as the US buys an enormous amount of technology, chassis and engines, from outside North America already.”

Machine tool purchasing and efficiency

I asked Illien where he buys his high-tech machine tools from - traditional Swiss and German makers or does he look to Japan and Korea for machines? He was quite outspoken on this topic: “We have some Swiss machines but mainly we buy from Japanese suppliers as they give us great service and will customise machining centres and other tools for us.”

I asked the panel if they were impressed with the energy efficiency of Formula E race cars. Illien answered this, saying, “Everyone goes on about the 90% efficiency of EV drivetrains but those same commentators fail to mention that Formula 1 petrol engines are now more than 50% efficient - compared to about 30% in road cars. No-one talks about that but the OEMs are happy to adopt our advances in technology for their road cars. Also, if we adopt an EV-only approach to road transport, we are in danger of being totally dependent on China for technology and vehicles.”

We rounded off the day with an extremely comprehensive tour of the Sauber race team’s facility, where COO Axel Kruse showed us almost every element of the development and construction of the Formula 1 and other race cars, with in-depth views and discussions on the body moulding shop, chassis and suspension building areas and the vast and impressive wind tunnel. I have not previously been given such access to a race team’s home and Kruse’s enthusiasm and that of all the team members made for a very special experience. 

Making connections - Swiss supplier expertise

Our party moved on to a specialist supplier the following morning, with a great insight to one of the often unsung elements of race cars - connector technology. 

Founded in Switzerland in 1946, LEMO took its name from the company's founder, engineer Léon Mouttet. Originally a manufacturer of contacts in noble and rare metals, the company took a major step forward in 1957 with the introduction of the push-pull self-latching connector, technology that it sold to the nuclear power industry, proof positive of its commitment to quality. Its involvement with Formula 1 and other race car applications began in 1995 with some customers in the UK. The company now boasts five research and development offices and more than 1,800 employees, many of whom have come through the Swiss watchmaking industry. LEMO’s major OEM business, some 6% of its sales, comes from supplying test and measurement connectors to carmakers and tier suppliers. Serge Buechli, LEMO’s Marketing Manager gave a presentation and spoke of how motorsport business is most beneficial to LEMO’s reputation in all its markets: “The quality that Formula 1 and other motorsport engineering demands helps us to maintain our quality standards in all the other markets that we supply to, including medical, broadcast, defence, and test and measurement. It is also inspiring for our people to see our products helping teams win races and championships!”

Innovation and Hyperloop in Lausanne

Our party then moved on to Lausanne to visit the École Polytechnic Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) where Dr. Robert Giezendanner presented the university’s multi-faceted approach to innovation, working in partnership with the automotive and other industries in Europe and beyond since 1986. The university acts as an incubator for many new ‘spin offs’ or startups and has attracted venture capital investment of $2 billion from 2013 to 2018, from all over the world.

Professor Mario Paolone introduced EPFL’s ‘Energypolis’, explaining how the department is researching closed-loop synthetic fuels and carbon capture. Paolone then took us to the university’s Hyperloop project where Lorenzo Benedetti, Technical Leader for the Hyperloop project introduced me to some young engineering students who showed me the extraordinarily innovative technology used in their 2018 SpaceX competition entry. This spirit of innovation was particularly evidenced by their statement that the while the proprietary electric motor they used last year was powerful enough to win them third place out of 20 teams, ahead of Stanford, Georgia Tech and Tsinghua universities, they are making their own motor for this year’s entry.

Driving change from track to road

Our visit to Switzerland was rounded off with a rare opportunity to speak to the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) at its headquarters in Geneva. The FIA is the governing body for world motor sport and the federation of the world’s leading motoring organisations and as well as regulating motorsport globally, is also working hard on road safety and sustainable personal mobility. We were hosted by Tim Malyon, former trackside engineer for the Red Bull Racing and Sauber F1 teams, and for BMW Motorsport in DTM and Formula E. Malyon has been appointed by the FIA as its first Head of Research and he spoke of how motorsport research and development could help to reduce the present figure of 1.35 million road deaths by addressing such issues as speeding, drink/drug driving, and greater seatbelt, child restraint and motorcycle helmet usage. He also showed examples of better road design, vehicle standards and emergency care, all of which can be improved with technology transfer from motorsport. Malyon made the point that, “Motorsport provides one of the most heavily-funded platforms for automotive research, in vehicle efficiency and safety but also in sustainability, as evidenced by the success of Formula E and the electric vehicle design, engineering and charging technology that has permeated to electric road vehicle development.”

Echoing Mario Illien’s comments at the Sauber Symposium, Malyon said that with the efficiency of petrol/electric powertrains in Formula 1 having risen from the road car average of 30% to 50%, the hybrid technology of today’s Formula 1 cars will be seen in the road cars of tomorrow, “With petrol/hybrid developments, there is much more efficient engine and drivetrain technology to come, technology that will transfer to road vehicles and make personal transport more sustainable in the future.”

He talked of how the FIA is looking at a safety ‘framework’ for hydrogen fuel cell competition cars that follows on from the developments made in Formula E and that the association is carrying out intensive research on the whole power trina, from hydrogen fuel storage at the track and in the car, to the fuel cell and thence to the motor.

A small but powerful and innovative culture

Switzerland may not be the cheapest place to design, innovate and manufacture automotive mainstream products and the executives and technical experts I talked to were very clear that the country’s prowess was best employed in more specialised fields than mainstream vehicle component making. The wealth of innovation and the high standards of technical education in the region will surely bring us a great number of visionaries who can help shape the future of the global automotive industry. With the ever-increasing speed of EV, hybrid, fuel cell and new material development, Switzerland has an enormous wealth of knowledge and expertise to offer tomorrow’s mobility challenges. 

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