Powertrain developers ‘a long way’ from having the digital tools they need, reveals industry workshop

  • Vehicle complexity is developing faster than the tools we need to deliver the solutions
  • Shortage of skills needed to accelerate digital engineering
  • Culture must change to drive adoption of digital techniques

Powertrain developers are ‘a long way’ from having the digital tools they need to meet intense cost and timescale pressures, a recent industry workshop revealed. Constrained by traditional approaches that replicate physical testing, engineers are missing opportunities to accelerate programmes, enhance decision making and achieve more with less.

These are the conclusions of a workshop organised by Professor Chris Brace, academic director of The University of Bath’s Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems. Coordinated jointly with the Institute for Digital Engineering, the workshop brought together 24 specialists from a mix of vehicle manufacturers, Tier 1 technology suppliers, consultants, innovators and academia. The workshop was initiated to identify the major areas of challenge and opportunity facing the automotive industry in the arena of digital engineering, with the clear objective to build a technology roadmap that will support the sector in the development and advancement of digital engineering tools and processes.

“A full day of discussion confirmed not only that many of the techniques needed to replace physical testing are not even in development, but also that current organisational silos could prevent their adoption,” states Professor Brace. “As we come out of lockdown, industry needs these tools to speed up the development of increasingly complex powertrain architectures within very tight resources.”

Shift from validation to decision support

The biggest block to a new way of approaching digital tools was thought to be historic functional silos, most notably physical test operations focussed on validation without a significant role in the development or calibration of digital tools. Professor Brace gave real-world failure modes as an example. “The data is being generated every day, but too little is being used to enhance the digital engineering capability,” he explains. “We need to bring physical and virtual testing together so that they support each other.” He predicts a future in which experimental data will be used primarily to calibrate and validate the digital models rather than to satisfy signoff criteria directly: “There are examples of this approach but there is a long way to go before we are even close to exploiting its full potential.”

Delegates also highlighted that digital engineering tools rarely extend beyond individual systems. “Take systems integration, one of the major trends in powertrain electrification,” says Brace. “There are a lot of complex interactions to be analysed when making powertrain architecture decisions, but there are no widely available tools that can capture the level of detail required for effective decision support,” he continues. “Some vehicle manufacturers and specialist consultancies have developed proprietary analysis tools, but adoption is patchy and too little interoperability means opportunities for joined-up working between industry partners cannot be fully exploited.”

“At IAAPS, we see increased collaboration between companies of all sizes as critical for the new, resource-constrained future. Digital tools are a critical enabler for this strategy,” he continues. “The workshop has renewed our belief in changing cultures, teaching new skills and facilitating system-level collaborations.”

When the new IAAPS R&I facility opens in 2021, it will be the first Institution in the UK to be designed specifically to develop the tools and skills needed for this new way of working. As well as teaching and research, it will work with global specialists to accelerate the development of digital engineering and with companies of all sizes to facilitate more efficient innovation.

Can we eliminate physical testing?

IAAPS Engineering Director Rob Oliver believes we will never eliminate physical testing. “The delegates agreed that systems are evolving too quickly to keep simulation sufficiently far ahead of technology developments,” he explains. “New battery chemistries are a great example. In other areas, like combustion, we are years from having enough computing power and enough fidelity in the algorithms to remove the need for physical experiments.”

Oliver says that paradoxically, accelerating the application of digital engineering needs a realistic understanding of the technique’s limitations and a strong focus on physical testing to explore and resolve areas of poor correlation. This is critically dependant on all groups working to common standards so that their data is accessible, verifiable and understandable to others in the organisation. “The strategy must be implemented at a senior level, where organisational culture can be changed,” he comments. “The workshop opened with many delegates expecting to conclude that simulation technology is the roadblock, but we finished by concluding it is the approach of senior management that needs to change first.”

As leader of the ‘Thermal Propulsion Systems - Systems Efficiency Spoke’ with the UK Government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, IAAPS will use the results of the workshop to build a development roadmap, together with industry partners. “Bringing companies of all sizes together to develop a faster, more-efficient way of working is central to the IAAPS mission,” concludes Professor Brace.


The Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) specialises in automotive propulsion research across all propulsion types. The Institute builds on 40 years of applied research in this field at the University of Bath, working in alignment with industry to solve the challenges faced in the design and development of powertrain systems. IAAPS is currently going through a significant period of growth with the expansion into a new £70 million research and innovation centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park, opening in 2021. Led by The University of Bath, IAAPS is designed to both accelerate the pace of innovation across companies of all sizes and to increase the supply of engineers with the skills needed to develop the next generation of clean vehicles. Independent research predicts that IAAPS will stimulate £67 million in additional R&D investment within five years of opening, driving an additional turnover of £800 million within the UK automotive sector and supporting around 1,900 new jobs across the UK economy.

Find out more: www.iaaps.co.uk

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