4th September 2012 by Mike Heskitt
OK… I’m not usually very touchy-feely, so starting a blog with this title is a bit out of character for me, but bear with me a moment and I’ll explain. In a profession like engineering, you have those moments where you see a unique solution, or suddenly “get it” in a moment of inspiration. These are ah-ha moments. Great feeling, and maybe what engineers really pine for ahead of most other experiences. Most of society doesn’t understand. Other engineers do.
It’s harder to describe the experience of the first meeting between Altair and Edison2, but the best I could do is call it recognizing a corporate kindred spirit. It’s a good feeling also of common understanding of the universe (or at least our small part of it) and common goals. It’s amazing how quickly the communications devolve into short-hand speak with concepts and ideas understood before sentences are finished, and often times having the other party finish the hanging sentence for you. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Edison2 is the company that won the Mainstream class in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize (www.progressiveautoxprize.org) in September 2010 with their “Very Light Car” (VLC) concept. As you learn more about Edison2, you see an eclectic group of people from diverse backgrounds, but with one fundamental common thread; they love cars, and especially “performance cars”.
For some, it is a hobby, for others, their day job, but they all brought their passion together and in this case focused on the “performance” aspects of a vehicle necessary to deliver some of the best fuel economy numbers you’ll find in a “near to practical” car. The XPrize requirements did enforce reasonable levels of practicality to filter out the science projects, like the 4 passenger requirement, 4 wheels (don’t design something you need to stick your foot out of at stoplights), and respectable 0-60 times (OK… well respectable when racing a soccer mom in her minivan… but you get the idea).
Their approach was simple… and pure. Light weight and low drag. Period. The VLC entered in the XPrize was barely over 800 lbs, and had one of the lowest drag coefficients ever measured for a 4 passenger car. The result: 110 mpg.
As they talked about their own ah-ha moment where realizing what performance is achievable by attacking these attributes, they describe the evolution of the mass decompounding effect of weight savings. Saving weight in one system allows you to reduce the requirements in another, and so on. We’ve all heard companies talk about this multiplier effect, but rarely do you find one with the stomach and cleverness to overcome the compromises that usually dissolve that virtue down to only a corporate cliché.
Furthermore, they found if you manage the two principle physics working against fuel economy, weight and drag, to the degree of fanatical obsession, you find that neither a hybrid nor an electric powertrain are really necessary to shatter misconceptions of how to achieve phenomenal performance. Simply put, if you make it light enough, and slippery enough, there isn’t enough energy to recapture to make the extra weight and cost of a hybrid pay off. This is how a company named Edison2 ended up submitting an internal combustion engine powered vehicle to the X-Prize, and won it.
For those of you who know Altair, one of our deepest core beliefs is that the fundamental design process should be driven by physics based simulation, and CAD is simply a documentation tool. Also, we believe you should optimize EVERYTHING. This doesn’t mean make each design a research project; it is simply the way to do engineering. Let optimization inspire your design ideas, and apply a disciplined optimization methodology to your downstream design processes. You get the right answer faster, and when done right, there is no fat.
While in the Detroit area, the founder of Edison2 decided to seek Altair out for this same reason. They knew that their approach to designing the first VLC wouldn’t be enough to refine the concept for a viable passenger car. They needed to implement a more sophisticated design process and the best technologies available to achieve as nearly as possible the performance of the VLC while adding the creature comforts needed for the consumer market. Although the meeting started with each company basically trying to sell something to the other (don’t all meetings start that way?), that recognition of a kindred corporate spirit and exciting lofty goals moved it quickly to philosophical discussions about minimalistic design and a passion for cars, and ended up with an agreement for Altair to partner with Edison2 on their next generation VLC project (www.edison2.com/next-generation-vlc/).
Almost everywhere you turn now you see another article about lightweight design. Don’t get me wrong, this is good, and as it should be. We don’t generally realize how much we leave on the table when we do things the same old way. Unfortunately, many companies think the answer is some complex formula of chemistry in new materials or complicated mixed material constructions or costly manufacturing processes… Most skip over the basics and jump to a complex solution. Here’s an idea; JUST USE LESS! You don’t need to tell this to Edison2. They get it.