What does future mobility mean for a fluid management specialist?

The introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles promises new opportunities for dlhBOWLES to apply its existing expertise. By Freddie Holmes

For a company that is well invested in conventional vehicle platforms, the so-called death of the internal combustion engine (ICE) would surely set alarm bells ringing. However, as has proven the case for many players across the supply chain, the gradual advance toward hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is proving an opportunity, not a threat.

US-based engineered plastics and fluid management firm dlhBOWLES has been developing thermoplastic solutions used in ICEs for decades. While it is not a powertrain company, diesel and gasoline engines account for a significant amount of business, with various fluids and gases from the engine requiring circulation or displacement. But what happens when the vehicle is propelled by electricity?

“Even though there may be a reduction in content in particular product lines associated with ICE vehicles, there is increased content with other products,” said Russell Hester, Director of Business Development at dlhBOWLES. “Given the overall vehicle architecture of HEV and BEV programmes, it will prove to be a net benefit in terms of content per vehicle.”

There may be a reduction in content in particular product lines associated with ICE vehicles, there is increased content with other products

Indeed, EVs bring their own particular requirements for coolant to be circulated around the vehicle and, more specifically, around the battery. Unlike traditional ICE vehicles, the battery does not reside in the confines of an engine bay, but across the floor of the vehicle. As such, thermal management systems will require more tubing to transport the necessary fluids, and keep the battery and its associated power electronics at an optimal temperature.

EV vs. ICE

Forecasts suggest EVs are set for rapid growth in coming years, but diesel and gasoline continue to dominate the passenger car market. That being said, the long-term impact on the supply chain needs to be considered sooner rather than later, and dlhBOWLES is making a proactive effort to understand how the future of mobility may impact its operations.

“It is clear that the ICE is not going away any time soon, and much of our product lines will continue to exist, even on smaller engines; it is more a matter of looking at the rise of EVs and understanding how we can grow amid a slight reduction in ICE volumes,” explained Hester.

“In the short- and medium-term, the move toward EVs is not a threat but something we need to anticipate as a company,” added Daniel Konrad, Vice President of Engineering at dlhBOWLES. “We need to be a part of this change, rather than being surprised in eight or nine years when the ICE market has shrunk. It is an opportunity to adapt to the changing markets in advance, because they are not changing overnight.”

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For dlhBOWLES, initial investigations have shown that the company will not be required to pivot and find a new direction, but instead tweak the existing portfolio to prepare for changes the EV trend will bring.

Because of the skateboard design in a scalable EV platform, coolant tubing runs along almost the entire length of the wheelbase

For example, the firm has played a key role in the transition away from heavy rubber hosing in combustion engines, such as those used in positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) systems. By substituting traditional hoses with lightweight thermoplastic tubing, automakers can save weight and time during their integration on the factory floor. Networks of thermoplastic tubes will remain in the picture for hybrid powertrains, advised Hester, and thermal management of battery packs will bring even more tubing.

What’s more, they all need to be held in place by connectors—an area in which dlhBOWLES is already well versed. “As an expert in thermoplastic extrusion, we feel that is probably the most appropriate path moving forward for many of these vehicles coming out in the future.”

Scalable EVs

Another positive trend is that many automakers are pursuing scalable platforms that allow multiple models to sit on the same architecture. It comes as part of a push to improve manufacturing efficiency and cut costs, a challenge that is particularly pronounced when making EVs at scale.

A common design has come to the fore, known as the ‘skateboard’ layout. It alludes to the placement of the battery—low to the ground and situated between the front and rear axles. Naturally, this opens up potential for growth as thermal management becomes a must-have. “In an ICE, especially in a front-wheel drive vehicle, the whole package is essentially under the hood. Systems are not well distributed, and all attached to the engine,” said Konrad. “But because of the skateboard design in a scalable EV platform, coolant tubing runs along almost the entire length of the wheelbase.”

Coolant lines run through the front motors, rear motors and the battery pack, for example. Thermal management is key as it affects how quickly the vehicle can charge, how far it can travel, and how safe the battery is. “Liquid cooling seems to be a must in this kind of application,” added Konrad. “Sealed, convection-cooled batteries are comparatively rare today.”

It is more a matter of looking at the rise of EVs and understanding how we can grow amid a slight reduction in ICE volumes

The idea is to create scalable architectures that can underpin a range of models across the range. For example, Volkswagen is investing more than €1bn (US$1.1bn) to prepare its Zwickau plant in Germany to produce vehicles based on its modular electric drive toolkit (MEB) platform; Volvo Cars is leveraging its compact modular architecture (CMA) platform across the portfolio, including that of sister brand Polestar; Toyota and Subaru have agreed to co-develop a platform designed for mid-size and large BEVs; and the first vehicles based on Jaguar Land Rover’s modular longitudinal platform (MLA) are expected by 2021.

“Based on what the big players are doing, we foresee fewer dedicated platforms in future. We want to help our customers find scalable solutions that support these flexible platforms,” said Konrad. “With standardised quick connectors and fluid tubing routings, we should be able to accommodate these scalable platforms very well—you can essentially extend those same products to any vehicle. We feel this naturally leads to standardisation of coolant systems and other componentry.”

Continued business

While the powertrain electrification trend has dominated the headlines of late, it is not sparking a revolution just yet. With the ICE still firmly in the picture, dlhBOWLES will not focus exclusively on electrified vehicles moving forward. It is however readying itself for what may come.

“It goes without saying that our existing portfolio—including other products such as sunroof drain tubes, all the other washer tubing and associated connectors—will stay with us throughout this transition,” Konrad said. “We are well diversified in various areas of the vehicle, and as such are not apprehensive about the future—we see it as an opportunity and will adapt to understand our customers’ needs.”

“From an outside perspective many would think that adapting to the evolution of mobility within the automotive industry requires the supplier base to rely on breakthrough innovation,” added Hester. “However, we recognise an additional path of creatively applying our existing knowledge and capabilities to generate ongoing growth and value. Fluid management on a vehicle is often constrained by a traditional mindset, a mindset we plan on shattering.”