New module programming and configuring technology from Mahle Powertrain puts an end to end-of-line testing. AMS reports on the opportunities for assembly line flexibility and cost savings that come with VPP

When it comes to the programming and testing of today’s electronically sophisticated vehicles, it all comes down to power – and where and how you can employ that power to “wake up” an in-process vehicle.

You can either wait until the end of the assembly process, when it’s safe to drop the battery in the vehicle, and then power it up to programme and configure the vehicle, then run function tests; or you can do it further upstream on the assembly line, rigging up a rail system to power the vehicle.

Both options have their shortcomings. Waiting for the battery means you’re cramming intensive testing and programming to the back-end of the assembly process; and if you do find a flaw, it could mean ripping out trim to correct the problem.

Rail systems become expensive

Installing a rail system ahead of the trim line to power the vehicle is effective, but very expensive. You need right and left side connections for the different drive options, thus requiring two rails; you need some kind of return automation, there are safety considerations, plus all the line-side real estate required to accommodate such a solution. And then there’s the recently patented Vehicle Powering Portable (VPP) by Mahle Powertrain – a portable 4.5kg system with enough power to “wake up” an in-process vehicle, program and configure it, and run all the necessary tests.

“In the past OEMs were limited as to what you could do in programming and configuring a vehicle because the battery wasn’t in place and you need all the vehicle’s modules to be “woken up” to be programmed,” explains Scott Bolt, Mahle Powertrain’s Production Development Manager, Test Systems.

Ease of operation is key – you plug the VPP in the vehicle’s cigarette lighter or attach it via cables to the battery connectors, “wake up” the modules, and download the vehicle’s individual build file. The VPP’s built-in scanner then scans the VIN of the vehicle being built.

The device wirelessly connects to the plant’s server system, downloads the vehicle’s individual build file, and goes to work. It takes the build file and programs and configures the vehicle according to the spec sheet, modifying the program for the different vehicle options – like a “sport” package.

Plug and let play

“Module programming and configuration with VPP can be done upline without an operator and it doesn’t require an individual test or programming station. You just plug it in and leave it to do its job,” says Bolt. “It’s already scanned the VIN and downloaded the build information, so it just goes along for the ride to the different assembly stations until it’s finished – it’s all automatic. It can program the modules, configure them and then do current-based testing – moving windows up and down and measuring currents, for example. The results are then sent wirelessly, to the central quality system,” he tells AMS.

It is early days yet for Mahle’s VPP and although it was only patented last year, one customer is already using it with success. Ford of Europe’s Genk assembly site in Belgium, which produces the S-Max, Galaxy and Mondeo has implemented the VPP system.

Measuring content

The Ford plant tested the technology using a simple application – measuring the content of the vehicle. “They wanted to test for under-build, overbuild, or just the wrong modules – as the module numbers increase, it becomes easier to put the wrong modules in the vehicle,” says Bolt.

Fast facts

* At $18,000 per unit, the cost is far less than installing a rail system. A simple rail system costs about $100,000, excluding the tester and automation costs, as well as operator requirements and a loss of line-side space; * Flexibility: because of its portability, automakers can use the technology practically anywhere on the assembly line. In terms of efficiencies, moving testing out of the final assembly area and putting it in a place where it doesn’t require operator intervention is a big efficiency gain for OEMs, according to Shirey. “If all you need is operator install/ uninstall of the VPP and everything is tested automatically, then it’s a huge advantage over testing in the final area where you need a driver to bring the vehicle to the test station, and sit with it while the testing is performed – it’s labour and space intensive if left until the end of the line.

“Ford’s idea was to do testing in the trim line so that any mis-builds could be caught in time before the trim panels, and carpet, for example, were installed. It is obviously very costly to have to tear the trim apart if you catch a mistake after the material has been installed,” he adds. Ford’s trial was successful and the carmaker’s most recent request is to move the rest of the Genk plant’s testing from end of line, to where the VPP is being used in trim. The company wants to reduce its headcount for operator dependent testing and move it nearer the start of the line. “That was the intent of the product all along, but Ford wanted to start with a relatively simple application.

But now that the system has been proved, the company is going ahead and moving all its static-based testing to upline VPP testing,” he says.

“The biggest advantage of our VPP tester is its transparency to the assembly plant,” says Bolt.

“The plant can perform a model-year changeover to a radically different vehicle with radically different testing requirements, without having to drastically alter its testing processes.”

Bob Shirey, who is Director of Mahle Test Systems, tells AMS: “The VPP helps assembly plants reduce the floor space coverage dedicated to module programming and verification testing which was previously done using rail-based end-of-line testers. “It offers opportunities for assembly line flexibility and cost savings not previously available. By providing complete power to the vehicle, it can conduct any vehicle diagnostic test.”