Tweaking test cells

Aug. 1, 2006
At first glance, the Frankenstein-style look of the engine testing rooms at Volvo's Hagerstown, MD, facility gives one a vaguely sinister impression

At first glance, the Frankenstein-style look of the engine testing rooms at Volvo's Hagerstown, MD, facility gives one a vaguely sinister impression — as though some evil monster-making alchemy is in progress.

Engines placed in these steel, sound-proof rooms are connected to fuel lines, exhaust tubes, and what seem likes hundreds upon hundreds of quick-connect wires — all routed back to a control board manned by a technician keeping a watchful eye on the test process through a thick Plexiglas window.

At the touch of a button, the engine roars to life and is put through its paces, cycling through its entire rpm range as the wires keep tabs on fuel economy, horsepower, torque performance and emissions levels.

“Start to finish, the entire engine test process takes anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes,” says Arnaud Bouthenet, vp-engineering for Volvo Powertrain. Actual testing takes about 20 minutes, while changing out engines and hooking up the wires, fuel lines, etc., consumes about 30 minutes.

Bouthenet says 100% of the engines built at the Hagerstown plant — which will include the Volvo D-11, D-13, and D-16 engine, as well as Mack's new MP-7, MP-8, and MP-10 by the end of '06 — get the shakedown treatment in the “test cells,” even if it means shipping some by plane to test facilities in Sweden.

“We fly engines back and forth to help us make sure we are meeting upcoming emissions regulations in Europe and the U.S.,” he says. “Right now, we have more engine test cells available in Goteborg [Sweden, Volvo's headquarters], but that's going to change when we bring new test cells on line here in the U.S.”

As part of a $150-million makeover of the Hagerstown plant, Volvo is building a dedicated $40-million test cell facility right next door that is scheduled to open this September. Bouthenet says new engines are going to come off the production line and be shipped by conveyer belt into one of 35 new test cells, with each “cell” containing two testing stations, allowing the OEM to test up to 70 engines at any one time.

He notes that these new cells are going to be radically different and far more complicated than their predecessors. “Not only are we going to test DPFs [diesel particulate filters] and SCR [selective catalytic reduction] systems], we can also test how these engines operate on diesel, gasoline, pure alcohol, ethanol, and other fuels, as well as hybrid engines — those linked to electric motors and batteries,” Bouthenet says. “A diesel engine can run on anything that burns, so we need to be able to physically test that.”

That also includes the ability to change atmospheric conditions, such as air pressure and humidity, to more accurately reflect different operating environments in the mountains, deserts, jungles, forests, you name it, he notes. And that's critical because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects each engine manufacturer to certify that its products meet emissions standards before they are shipped to customers.

Test cells are the only way to do that accurately, Bouthenet explains. “Our goal is to be able to test any conceivable engine design for the next 45 years under every kind of condition we can imagine,” he says. “Every time we face a change in emissions standards, we are afraid we can't meet them — that it's going to cost too much or be physically impossible. But then we do.”

Bouthenet has spent his entire career in truck manufacturing. He started out with Renault in France, moved to Sweden after Renault's acquisition by Volvo, and is now in the U.S. to help prepare Volvo's engines for '07 and '10 emissions regulations.

“Test cells are the way we confirm not only that the engines comply with emissions rules, but also match the intended application in terms of expected performance and fuel economy,” he explains. “It looks like intensive surgery in there with all of the wires and tubes, but it's still the best way we can verify these engines meet all of the requirements demanded of them, from both government regulators and customers.”

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