Half the time of a conventional automaker. That’s how long it took Germany-based StreetScooter to get from the first plans for its electric car to the start of production.
And while the vehicle itself is pioneering, it’s the process by which it was developed that demonstrates the use of Internet of Things technology not only to analyze performance of products, and anticipate potential problems, but to help design them in the prototype stage.
It’s “the first sign of the transformation of a whole industry,” Peter Burggräf, the company’s CEO, told an audience at LiveWorx.
Burggräf is also co-chair of production management at Aachen University in Germany, where the idea for this project began: to “design and test a car from scratch,” as he put it, “with a minimum of resources in a minimum amount of time.”
That’s an understatement.
StreetScooter had only 15 engineers on its payroll when it set out in 2010 to create electric vehicles for personal and delivery use in cities.
Instead of trying to convert conventional combustion-engine cars into electric versions, as major automakers have done—an expensive proposition that has also caused huge problems by incorporating such accepted elements as air conditioning, which drains the battery—StreetScooter began from scratch.
It set its sights on urban delivery fleets, landing DHL as a major customer, and focused on creating a vehicle specific to the company using an approach developed at the university called return on engineering.
“Developing a car is very complex. The product is very complex. You have the battery, which itself is a very complex system. You have a lot of regulations. You have to integrate a lot of suppliers,” Burggräf said. “How is it possible to cope with that level of complexity with a small team of 15 engineers?”
One way was to understand exactly what the buyer needed, and not over-engineer, Burggräf said.
“We want to reduce everything that is not useful for the customer,” he said.
The compact yellow DHL delivery vans have no entertainment systems or air conditioning, and use a building-block approach to reduce maintenance costs. The bumpers, for examples, are divided into four parts, any one of which—rather than the whole thing—can be removed and replaced if damaged.
“It’s all about total cost of ownership,” said Burggräf.
StreetScooter also disrupted the supply chain. Its component providers helped design the vehicle. Nineteen of them were even among the initial stockholders in the company. In all, 80 are now involved in the development process.
“Normally automotive suppliers are used to getting requirements from an automotive company,” Burggräf said. “But in this case we asked them to bring in their knowledge.”
And the project used IoT technology from 30 embedded sensors to provide real-time feedback about its protoypes.
With only 15 engineers, each one of them “needs a direct connection to the products and a direct connection to the users of the products,” Burggräf said. “We collected all the data from the car and compared it with preliminary requirements and could test how good the car is compared to requirements.”
For example, constant feedback from the car helped measure the essential question of the battery’s maximum range.
Conventional carmakers “traditionally wait for perfect solution then bring them into market and see it’s not working,” Burggräf said.
By 2013, the first 20 vans were in service in Bonn, where the entire fleet will be converted to electric by next year.
In December, DHL bought the company outright. It’s making further use of IoT data to keep track of its vehicles and give feedback to employees about their driving behavior meant to help improve efficiency.
Meanwhile, to drive down costs still more, StreetScooter has adapted the same battery-management systems used for the delivery vehicles into its lines of personal cars and even electric-powered bicycles.
It foresees a huge demand.
“You don’t need to look too far in the future,” said Burggräf. “There are even today very big markets for electric vehicles.”
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Image courtesy of StreetScooter