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Adrian Smith, chief engineer of high performance and electric brakes for the company, talks about the philosophy that has guided Akebono over the years, a recent renewed partnership with one of the most prestigious businesses in the F-1 racing circuit, and why an investment made back in the 90s is about to begin paying off in a huge way. Steve Engelhardt reports.
Akebono embodies today what it truly means to be an active, and successful global business, as Smith says, “We could be leading a program in Europe, handling the engineering for it in Japan, and performing the testing in North America.” One of the Japanese-owned company’s most distinguishing traits is their strong presence in all three of what Smith calls “elements of the foundation brake system”. “Differentiation in braking used to be achieved through qualities like stopping power or distance,” he says, adding, “nowadays those factors have pretty much become the standard, and the new ones are much more specific, aspects like residual drag, noise and vibrations issues that are felt or heard when stepping on the brake pedal.” Smith says that being able to not only supply but also work with these elements, which are brake calipers, rotors, and friction materials, enables them to identify these emerging differentiators much more easily, and produce a much more effective product as a result. “For every program, we are looking to clearly exceed the expectations of our customers,” he says, noting, “meeting the requirements of the market is no longer enough, and I think the people here at Akebono realize that and keep that in mind whenever they produce or develop braking components for our customers.”
Formula For Success
Smith says that even though Akebono has made a name for itself in the mainstream market with automotive OEMs and the aftermarket, he believes one of the most impressive accomplishments to date is their continued success experienced in the Formula-1 racing circuit, referencing their extensive partnership with the McLaren Mercedes Formula-1 team. One of their biggest contributions to McLaren over the years has been their successful development of an electronic ‘brake-bywire’ rear brake control system that aids the braking effort at the rear, negating the need for the driver to constantly alter the brake bias, which assist in optimizing brake performance. First joining forces in 2007, the two companies announced an extension of their partnership in February, with McLaren elevating Akebono’s status to ‘Technology Partner.’ The move will lead to Akebono designing and integrating an all-new braking system in response to recent changes in Formula-1 regulations.
The extension marks the third time the two companies have agreed to stay in business with one another, something Smith regards as particularly special. “Being a technical-based company at our core, to be able to have sustained success in the motorsports market, where everything is driven down to a science, where marketing aspects are stripped away and only the best products make the cut, it’s something that reaffirms our belief in our team’s innovation and strengthens our company technical identity.” He says that the extension coming in 2014 was especially notable for him and his company, as there have been a slew of new F1 regulations that call for improvements in braking systems, and their need to be integrated with the rest of the vehicle in a much more significant manner. “This partnership really makes a lot of sense, because given our history and comfort in working together, changes and developments can be made much more easily and smoothly.”
In lieu of their success in Formula 1, Akebono has seen demand for their products in other McLaren cars, including road car and further competition programs. “We’re supplying the McLaren 12C GT3 racecar, and they also recently announced the launch of their McLaren P1 with our road car systems in it,” he says, adding, “I think our passion for the performance market and our continued relationship with a company like McLaren will go a long way for us in growing our presence in these areas in the future.”
And that’s what Akebono is always focused on: the future. It’s shown not just in their products, but also in their long-term commitment to the future of their industry as a whole. In fact, travelling back a couple of decades to the mid-90s, Akebono participated in a study through the environmentalist organization Sustainable Conservation that focused on determining and eventually limiting the environmental effects of brake friction materials. “We were concerned as to where exactly our old brakes and friction material was going, and we found it was ending up on the roads, where the rain would wash and mix it into the storm water, which was having an impact on the surrounding environment,” Smith says, adding, “we responded to this by getting involved with Sustainable Conservation and working with them to improve brake quality and minimize the impact that high performance brakes were having on the environment.”
Akebono was instrumental in the process, assisting in defining the legislative outlines, as well as conducting the necessary testing on the brakes to determine the exact source of the issue and improve the overall quality. The net result of the process was the identification of copper’s negative environmental affects in friction materials and a subsequent plan that would eventually phase copper out of all friction materials in brakes. “There is a legislative requirement that will go into effect in 2021 requiring friction material to have a restricted amount of copper in it, and by 2025, that law bans all copper in friction material.” Smith says that these dates may seem far away, but acknowledges that “there are current benefits of copper in friction materials, and the appropriate replacement materials need to be researched and understood before we completely phase it out.”
And Akebono is doing just that, as eleven years ahead of schedule, the company has recently begun producing its first OE application with copper-free non-asbestos organic material. “I don’t believe that any other brake manufacturer, even those who solely supply friction material, have been able to do this yet,” he says, adding, “yes, we are a commercial organization, but we also take great pride and commitment towards having a minimal footprint on the environment, and I think in this case it really benefitted us from both standpoints as a company.”
Akebono’s willingness to explore new ideas and work with organizations and individuals worldwide was displayed again recently in their partnership on urban law enforcement vehicles in the United States, involving an upgrade in braking systems for a police vehicle. “Police vehicles in the United States are typically in the form of current production vehicles, which then have a significant amount of weight added to them through equipment, such as computers, radios, and lights,” Smith says, adding, “often times all this weight is added without making modifications to the braking system, which understandably leads to issues in its performance.”
He says that a vehicle manufacturer came to Akebono with a request for an upgrade in their braking system, although with one catch; they weren’t willing to modify any of the vehicle’s wheel designs, meaning physical space would be limited and Akebono would have to fit their components into an predetermined design. Smith says that instances like this, while not typical, are met with ease by his company, due to their “three element approach, which really allowed us to probe each aspect of their system with a full understanding of how everything would impact each other.” He says that through their combined elements approach, they were able to rapidly install a complete new braking system that integrated smoothly with the existing police package.
“In the Michigan State Police trials, a competitive vehicle test in February, our hard work was actualized when the vehicle we worked on finished as the clear leader in the braking trials,” Smith says, adding, “I think this was an instance where some of our competitors may have struggled, given the same opportunity, because they can’t follow the three element approach in the manner that we have and continue to do.”
Akebono, while immersed in the brake business, is a company that has its foot firmly on the gas pedal, speeding forward into the future. “The company shows a quiet strength, but we have a lot to celebrate, Smith says, concluding, “I think in terms of our technical depth, and the talent of the individuals working here, we’re one of the best stories never told.” Well, at least they used to be.