GKN and the ultimate driveline component

Now that the great names of the British car industry have been defeated on the battlefield, what is left of the independent national industry has been driven underground. Out of the public eye, these companies are not only fighting a successful rearguard action but in fact they have come to occupy many strategic positions. Prominent amongst these is GKN, a world leader in driveline components.


The latest driveline success has come with the supply of the Visco Lok limited slip differential (LSD) to BMW’s new M3 Coupe. Visco Lok can progressively lock the differential and so extract dynamic benefits from the vehicle that would be beyond the capabilities of an orthodox torque sensing LSD. The GKN system can also be readily tuned to the desired driving characteristics and will be extended to a four-model line-up, including the Z4M, M5 and M6.


The company of Guest Keen and Nettlefolds traces its origins to the iron industry of Dowlais in South Wales, once the greatest iron producing centre in the world but now a forgotten suburb of Merthyr Tydfil. By a process of continuous innovation GKN evolved from a manufacturer of metal bolts and fasteners into a producer of high technology components. Through its acquisition of Hardy Spicer, one of the main developers of the constant velocity joint (CVJ), GKN has come to dominate the driveline component market. Indeed, it now claims to be a world leader in this technology with 21,000 people employed across 40 global locations, including four in Japan.


Nissan R&D continues to focus on Japan

Nissan’s announcement that it has inaugurated a new advanced engineering R&D facility in Kanagawa, Japan, underlines the continuing central role played by its home base. Although the company has centres spread around the globe, such as the European Technical Centre hidden away at Cranfield University and the Rotunda in Paddington, London, these are generally employed in peripheral activities. Even in the US, where Nissan sold nearly 1.4m vehicles last year, the R&D facility employs barely more than 500 personnel.


The new facility in Kanagawa will take the leading role in developing environmental and safety technologies, combining these capabilities in a single location. It will house 2,000 engineers and is part of a $748m R&D investment. Other centres include the global design centre in Atsugi and a world HQ in Yokohama. It might even be argued that it is not Japan but Kanagawa that has become the epicentre of Nissan’s operations, with an engine plant and HQ in Yokohama, a manufacturing plant in Oppama, a newly upgraded technical centre and the recently announced advanced engineering centre, all of them within the same locality.


Bosch’s fanfare for the common rail

It has been ten years since Bosch introduced the Common Rail injection system for passenger cars, first appearing on the Alfa Romeo 156 JTD and the Mercedes-Benz C 220 CDI. It was designed to meet ever-tightening emission regulations and it works by pumping the fuel pressure up to between 1,350 and 1,800 bar from where the fuel is delivered to electronically operated valves positioned at each cylinder. This ensures precise fuel injection and atomisation of the fuel, resulting in a highly efficient combustion and reduced CO2 emissions.


The basic concept has been around since the 1960s, being further developed by Denso of Japan in the mid-1990s for heavy truck applications. Mass market applications were explored by Fiat and this technology was then acquired by Bosch for final development. This was the system that made it into the Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz in 1997. This year the company plans to make over 8m systems at 15 facilities in 11 countries, and sees further growth to come. Common rail technology is advanced enough to help engines meet California’s emission regulations, the most stringent in the world, and may at last convince the Americans of the benefits of diesel.


Fleet Residuals Set for A Correction

The Society of Motor Auctions, part of the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF), is warning fleet operators that they are being unrealistic about their vehicle valuations. These residual values are a vital component of budgeted fleet costs and clearly it is in their interests to maintain the residual value of their vehicles as much as possible. However, by stubbornly sticking to unsustainably high estimates they are finding it increasingly difficult to dispose of their old vehicles.


The SMA points out that this is not only causing a log-jam of used cars, it is also inefficient because their eventual sale price is below what they might have fetched had they been more realistically valued in the beginning. The organisation is warning the fleets that the used car market has become more competitive since Easter and so vendors need to learn to be more flexible.


ZF Changes up a gear

ZF, the German transmission company, is looking to expand its engineering capabilities on the back of rising demand for hybrid powertrain technology. It is seeking 100 additional engineers in electronic and hybrid development this year, followed by a further 150 the following year. The company currently employs around 4,500 engineers at sites in Germany and Detroit, although the new requirement for engineers applies only to the German facilities.


The company is one of the leading German owners of industrial patents and has stuck doggedly to the manufacture of gear systems since it was established to make gears for the Zeppelins in 1915. From 1918 it expanded into the automobile market and came to prominence in the 1960s. In 2001 it released the world’s first automatic with six speeds.

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