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David Soyka reports on how this Dutch company ties a worldwide network together to provide “surprisingly clever solutions” to North American customers with groundbreaking innovations at its Michigan plant.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill liked to say that, “All politics are local.” Dr. Johan Van de Ven, division director for Bosal Emission Control Systems (ECS), similarly points out that all global business is local. While physical footprint of the Bosal plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. totals 183,000 square feet on 48 acres, its capabilities reach around the world.
“The Bosal Group has operations in 22 countries,” Van de Ven says. “We share our collective knowledge and resources to design and deliver the best engineered solutions with the best technologies.” Van de Ven himself travels at least up to once monthly from Bosal Group headquarters in Belgium to Michigan. “If there’s a problem or issue in Michigan, it ultimately lands on my desk,” he says. “But I have the advantage that I can engage our whole organization to identify what needs to be done and mobilize a response quickly and effectively. We make the final products in Michigan for customers in North America, but everything we do behind that is part of an integrated worldwide network.”
Adds, Olivier Quoibion Marketing and New Business Development Director, “We also look to our local people to take up challenges elsewhere in the world. One of our key engineers in Michigan is currently helping Bosal set up operations in the Czech Republic. It’s great to see that kind of exchange, and the result is that Michigan gets back an engineer with some new insights from his overseas assignment.
Even Bosal’s three business units, though focused on different applications and one addressing an entirely different market, coordinate to share synergies that result in best-in-class products. “Bosal Automotive Carrier Protection Systems (ACPS) designs and manufactures what we in Europe call tow bars but in U.S are called tow hitches. We are the leading manufacturer of electrically retractable tow bars and the use of computerized intelligence to manage the weight and direction of loads.”
He continues, “Bosal Industrial Energy Conversion designs and manufactures heat recovery systems for commercial power generation products,” Van de Ven points out. “We are one of the leading experts in heat transfer technologies.”
So how do these three business units complement one another?
While ACPS and ECS share the same customer base, the big area of convergence is intelligent controls. “One of the big factors in the automotive industry today is deploying smart technology, computerized controls that better regulate performance to improve overall efficiency and safety, reduce fuel consumption and increase useful product longevity. ACPS makes controls that automatically adjust to the weight and positioning of whatever is hooked to the vehicle. In addition, it detects any problems so they can be corrected before you drive off. That not only ensures overall safety, but establishes optimum towing conditions that result in the best ride that attains the best fuel efficiency. Similar technology applies to emission controls, where we need to detect and correct problems to minimize pollutants and fuel consumption.”
He adds, “We also share the same competencies with industrial heat recovery systems. Every emissions system comprises a hot end, where the better you manage heat transfer, the better you manage emissions. By the same token, although the ECS division is primarily focused on the automotive industry, industrial systems also require emission controls.”
Van de Ven emphasizes that, “By sharing our expertise and capabilities among the three divisions employing an extensive worldwide network of people and resources, we’re able to offer our customers, in whatever markets or applications they require from us, surprisingly clever solutions.”
Surprisingly Clever Solutions
He chuckles at this expression. “The phrase itself is kind of enticing, but it’s not just a marketing catchphrase. There is in fact a context and mentality at Bosal that compels surprisingly clever solutions. Everything we do as an organization focuses not just on what’s the best solution to a customer’s needs, but just as importantly how can we further innovate to provide benefits the customer wasn’t even thinking about.”
One example is the management of exhaust gases. “An emission control system needs to manage engine exhaust efficiently to remove pollutants and improve overall engine performance,” Van de Ven notes. “But, using the technology from our industrial heat exchange systems, we devised a way to recover the heat from the exhaust gases to power other engine functions, such as to preheat engine and eventually charge battery.”
Surprisingly clever solutions also follow the dual track of evolutionary improvements coupled with revolutionary change. Take, for example, the constant pursuit to reduce vehicle weight. We have achieved considerable results in developing welded systems which eliminate other conventional joints that add to weight, using metal that is 0.8MM thick versus the standard 1.2MM material,” Van de Ven explains. “That’s an evolutionary improvement. Where we’re doing something revolutionary is exploring the use of exotic composite materials in areas of the system where metal is required that aren’t quite as hot. Composites not only have the potential to reduce the weight of the material structure by 20 to 30 percent, they also provide a dual use to provide better acoustic management.”
Except for the hot rodder who actually likes the sound of the exhaust system, automakers generally strive to make their vehicles as quiet as possible. Van de Ven points out that the same material used for filters required to trap exhaust particles also help deaden noise. “Our emission control systems integrate materials that both filter pollutants and improve acoustics,” he says.
Van de Van also notes that automakers are moving towards global platforms. “Eliminating separate designs for different world markets is simply more cost effective,” he says. “It also makes us more cost-effective to design emission control systems that integrate into a platform that is sold anywhere around the world.”
Bosal’s worldwide sensibilities also come into play in perfecting emission control systems for the North American markets. “The combustion of diesel engines result in production of small particulate and nitrogen oxides,” Van de Ven says. “While there aren’t many diesel passenger cars in the United States, they represent over half of all cars in Europe. So as the U.S. starts adopting stricter emission standards, where smaller particules also start playing the role for petrol engines where we already have the experience and know-how to implement the right solutions.”
Another key trend in emission control systems is durability, According to Van de Ven, “Years ago, the typical exhaust system had a life expectancy of three to four years. Today it averages 12 to 13 years. The next generation will be even longer to the point where the expectation is that you won’t have to replace the exhaust system for the life of the vehicle.”
Which is why Bosal is doing some evolution of its own in placing less emphasis on aftermarket products, where it is a market leader, and more on supplying auto OEMs. With that has come a modernization of its manufacturing processes to provide more added value to the overall automotive system.
“We have just invested in more robotic systems. ”The issue isn’t to automate to replace labor and reduce cost, the issue is to increase quality,” Van de Ven emphasizes. “A robot makes a perfect weld, unlike where a human hand might jiggle just enough to cause an imperfection. Automation doesn’t necessarily eliminate people, either, but it does require training your people to do different tasks to operate the new systems.”
Bosal is also striving to prototype faster. “With 3D printing we have the opportunity to make tooling for certain components, particularly those that are difficult to shape, to quickly provide small demonstrations. This kind of rapid prototyping provides an enormous advantage to our ability to provide customers with the best solutions in a quick and cost-efficient manner.”
In league with that, points out Olivier Quoibion, is the effort to focus the appropriate resources where they are most needed, once more employing the notion of local backed by a global network. “We design a custom solution locally, but there are always parts of that solution that are fairly standard. We can offshore to India to make those easily replicated components less expensively, while we concentrate locally on the more complicated elements. That way we can reduce the cost of the overall system while still providing the best designed solution without compromise.”
Adds Van de Van, “We’re looking to do the same things in our manufacturing processes that we offer in the emission control systems we provide our customers: achieve premium efficiency and elegant simplicity with more integration at the best cost.”