ACS guides OEMs and suppliers through the challenges of a critical stage of product development
By Mark Shortt
The automotive industry’s shift to electric vehicles (EVs) is impacting, and is expected to continue to impact, the U.S. supply chain for automotive components, systems, and services. This transition is opening a new world of opportunity for testing service providers and systems integrators.
One of the most critical parts of the product development cycle, especially for automotive manufacturers, is testing. Strict observance of safety protocols is necessary within test cells and to ensure safe operation of vehicles on the road. Testing also needs to be performed with project timelines in mind.
One company that’s establishing a niche in the testing and validation of electric vehicles and their components is ACS, a Wisconsin-based systems integrator that provides custom equipment, controls, and construction management services for R&D and production facilities.
“In order for them [automotive manufacturers] to get product to market sooner, they’ve got to go through that validation process,” said Chris Arnold, managing director at ACS’s Michigan office, in an interview with Design-2-Part. “The marketplace as a whole is challenged by crazy lead times right now, not just in our market, but everywhere.“
According to Arnold, it takes about 12 to 18 months to design, procure, and install a test facility that will meet an automaker’s needs. Knowing that testing must be coordinated with product development, ACS begins thinking about its customer’s testing and validation needs well before the customer reaches that point in its product development cycle.
“We’ve got to be starting to work on the test facility early, so that when the product is mature enough, it has a testing infrastructure to be exercised in,” he said.
ACS is a systems integrator that describes itself as a “single-source partner for equipment, controls, and facility solutions.” Although its legal name is officially ACS-Affiliated Construction Services, Inc., the company has evolved into a business that offers services well beyond what it originally envisioned. Today, the company is known simply as ACS.
When it started in 1994, the company’s business model was weighted more heavily towards construction. “The underlying concept was to assure the delivery of specialty equipment and facilities, fully integrated with the building utility systems,” the company’s website states.
Fast forward 29 years, and ACS is now striving to help clients maximize their facility’s efficiency with systems that are designed and engineered to work together. The company said in a release that it “designs, engineers, and builds innovative equipment, machines, controls, and facilities for industry leaders in verticals including automotive, aerospace, and manufacturing.”
“We combine our knowledge of building design and construction with expertise and understanding of equipment, R&D and production test, process systems, automation, and controls, for industry leaders who require high-performance systems,” the company added.
ACS is headquartered in Verona, Wisconsin, and has a regional office in Troy Michigan. The company’s customers span North America and beyond.
Many of ACS’s legacy OEM customers have existing test cells that are focused on traditional testing of gas and diesel engines, and of ICE (internal combustion engine) powered powertrains and vehicles. But as more electric drive solutions become available, the need to transition the existing ICE focused test cells to “E-focused” test cells becomes more apparent.
Arnold said there are several key considerations when converting traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) powertrain testing facilities to test e-mobility products.
“The ‘bones’ of these ICE test cells are generally well put together and can be repurposed for electric testing,” he said. “We start by understanding what the customer’s goals are with their new test cell, and begin to translate this into specific pieces of test and support equipment,” he told D2P. “We work with the customer to perform an assessment of their existing test cell and building infrastructure to determine what can be reused.”
Arnold said that often, the existing test cell infrastructure—including the room enclosure, ventilation, test fixturing, and control room—can be reused “as is.” Fitting the new test equipment into the space is the next challenge, as it requires moving it physically into place and getting it powered up. Some degree of creativity is often required to repurpose old spaces while finding room for the new test equipment, he said.
“Electric test cells often require more power than their equivalent ICE test cells. Looking at the power infrastructure of the existing building and determining the best solution to powering the new equipment is key to project success,” Arnold said.
Another important consideration is a careful review of the safety systems associated with the test cells, he added. Because the safety requirements of electric cells are much different from those of a traditional ICE test cell, it’s “important to review all failure modes with the customer and ensure that a proper safety system is designed around the new safety requirements.”
Arnold said that as companies are “trying to do more with less,” they’re cutting down on prototypes and number of test cells. This makes a well-planned test facility so important.
“We are working with our customers to create the highest level of flexibility, as well as maximizing the utilization of equipment within the test cells. The number of variants of test articles requires your test facility to be super nimble. We are trying to create test cells that pack a lot of capability into a single test cell, rather than having several test cells, each with a unique capability,” he said.
In a conversation with Design-2-Part, ACS President Scott Hoselton joined Arnold to contribute their insights into how industry trends in e-mobility are affecting the testing and validation of electric vehicles and their components. Following are portions of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity, along with some responses received by email.
Design-2-Part: What services does ACS provide to the electric vehicle industry? Can you summarize the value that you bring to customers?
Scott Hoselton: Ultimately, we’re a solutions provider to the automotive industry, and our focus is on the test systems, from a holistic perspective. What I mean by that is we provide custom data acquisition systems, to test stands, to facility infrastructure, and complete turnkey test centers.
Our real core strength is understanding the test technology, delivering the solution, and taking responsibility for the performance. That’s really why we get hired. We get hired because of our technical expertise, our delivery model, and our ability to accept risk.
D2P: How would you characterize the demand that ACS is experiencing today for the services that you provide to electric vehicle OEMs and Tier suppliers?
SH: It’s really very dynamic, and it’s growing. We were fortunate that because of our position in the marketplace and understanding the trade winds, if you will, we got involved with trying to understand electrification and the components of that—the battery requirements—early on. We got recognized from some legacy customers that we were growing this expertise, and so we were engaged.
We’ve been asked to provide both specific solutions based on developed statements of work, and then ‘expertise’ in the design and build of test systems and facilities. There’s a big focus on safety, as you might imagine. But technology is developing and evolving, and right now, the marketplace is really in a collective learning mode. So that’s kind of where we’re at. It’s very opportunistic for us, and growing very quickly. It’s really a great opportunity for ACS.
D2P: In this growing EV ecosystem, what are automakers’ biggest needs that testing equipment manufacturers, systems integrators, and providers of testing services can help them with?
SH: It is imperative for equipment manufacturers and system integrators to keep pace with, or stay one step ahead of, our customers. The product offerings are changing daily, and it is important that we understand the testing and safety needs required by our customers. We need to be as nimble as possible, to flex our solutions and deliver as quickly as possible. Testing is part of the product development cycle, and if we can help our customers get there faster, it means improved time to market for them.
D2P: As the auto industry transitions to EVs, what are the new components, parts, and systems that require testing? (Powertrain system components, thermal transfer components, heat pumps, power electronics components, for example)
Chris Arnold: Many of the testing requirements are the same or similar to ICE testing. You still have all the vehicle systems to test and, ultimately, you are still testing powertrain components delivering power to the road. The one obvious addition is that of the battery system.
The battery system requires extensive testing at cell, module, and pack levels to ensure the power delivery to the drivetrain. These systems must go through testing at temperature extremes to ensure consistent power delivery and longevity. There is also a high level of safety tests that need to be performed to ensure safe operating conditions once inside the final product.
D2P: Are there any other new components that you’re seeing in electric vehicles that aren’t in gas powered vehicles?
CA: It really comes down to the powertrain, for sure. Obviously, the combustion engine goes away, and it’s ultimately replaced by a battery and electric motor, and some type of inverter and gearbox. So, the vehicle itself, as a whole, largely remains the same. You’ve still got the same interior components, you’ve still got the same suspension, and vehicle dynamics haven’t changed that much.
So the biggest change has really been the battery testing. Regardless of what’s powering [the vehicle], whether it’s electric current or it’s gasoline in a reciprocating engine, it’s still rotating equipment. So the principle of testing a combustion engine versus electric motor—it’s largely the same. We’re still testing the rotating equipment.
But the batteries? That’s a completely new animal. There’s no parallel to that in combustion engine testing. And that’s where a lot of our customers have had to add new capability and also understand the safety and risks associated with testing batteries of these high voltage systems.
D2P: How much of today’s EV testing is done in-house by OEMs, versus being outsourced to providers of testing services? Why might OEMs choose to do their own testing, or to outsource?
SH: We see a mix among our customers. The large OEMs generally try to keep as much testing in-house as possible—it is the core of product development and a key component to their competitive advantage. The testing that tends to get outsourced are the one-off tests where the costs of a new facility can’t be justified; and the low-tech testing, such as mileage accumulation or durability.
CA: As Scott mentioned, by and large, our customers like to do testing in-house to have control over that. But there’s also new testing technology that they don’t necessarily have in-house, and they rely on outside vendors as well as specialty and unique staff. There’s a lot more one-off testing—in terms of battery testing, for sure—where you actually have to do intentionally destructive testing of the battery packs. As you can imagine, it’s fairly dangerous and potentially toxic to the surrounding areas, and those are the types of tests that a lot of people would rather outsource.
D2P: Are you more active in providing services to OEMs who are already established in their facilities, or are you also working with some of the companies who are building new facilities at this point?
CA: It’s certainly a mix of both. There are a lot of startups, as you can see in the news—new electric vehicle startups that don’t necessarily have any existing test facilities. So, we’re working with some of them to help them establish what their needs are and, ultimately, build something from the ground up.
I would say most of our legacy customers have names you would recognize, from Ford and GM to John Deere and Cummins. They have those testing facilities in place, but they’re not necessarily what they need today. So, they’re having to take their existing test facilities and retrofit them to handle either alternate fuels or electrification testing. That’s where we’re usually working with them—within the footprint of an existing test space and trying to strip back as much as we can to update it to meet their future needs.
D2P: Electric vehicles require components, manufacturing processes, and new types of production and test cells and facilities that are different from those required for traditional vehicles. How is new product development affecting their testing requirements?
CA: There are three key components of electric vehicle testing that are different from traditional vehicles: First, the testing infrastructure usually requires more power to account for battery simulation or charging. Second, the safety requirements of BEV testing are very unique when compared to ICE testing—they require a fresh set of eyes to make sure the testing is being conducted in a safe environment.
Lastly, the battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have much less waste heat when compared to ICE vehicles, and this is very helpful when designing a testing environment. The improved efficiency of the vehicle makes the HVAC and cooling of a test cell much simpler.
SH: There’s new technology, and the technology changes are driving changes in the test needs, in both procedures and infrastructure. They’re changing facility requirements, and they’re changing the corresponding safety systems and protocols. This requires new operating standards, design and development of new equipment, and identification and implementation of new safety protocols. This, in turn, requires new planning and new investment.
It’s really snowballing across the entire testing marketplace, and everything’s impacted and affected. So there’s really a whole lot that needs to be addressed in a relatively short amount of time, due to the market demands.
D2P: As a systems integrator, what do you see as the biggest challenge going forward in meeting the needs of companies that may not even know what they will need in this new automotive ecosystem?
CA: You hit the nail on the head. It’s trying to do some ‘mind reading’ in working with development engineers as early in the development process as possible so we can understand, at the same time that they’re developing products, what the ultimate testing solution has to be. So, it’s a little bit of forecasting to try to stay ahead of that. We’re trying to keep a half-step in front of the product guys, so that they have tools available to ultimately build better products.
SH: I think it’s really important, too, that the integrator works hand in hand with the OEM or the Tier 1, or whoever the customer is. We’ve been involved, many times, in developing test solutions for a product that hasn’t been fully developed yet. So, as Chris said, it’s a moving target at best. And so we have to really be a partner with the customer to work with them and be willing to change and evolve with them as their product changes in its evolution.