10/1/1999 | 8 MINUTE READ

Ford Technology Sets Sail

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The Blue Oval isn't appearing on this America's Cup yacht just as a marketing ploy.


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It doesn't take a degree in marketing to figure out why Ford would want its name emblazoned on the AmericaOne yachts this month. October marks the beginning of the selection series for the America's Cup match race against the current holder of the cup, Team New Zealand, in February and March 2000. (If you're having a momentary lapse of recall, the America's Cup is the oldest trophy in international sports, having been first awarded in 1851. As the AmericaOne team will tell you, it's "the Holy Grail of sailboat racing.") When skipper Paul Cayard and the rest of his San Francisco-based team hit the water, they will be vying for the right to represent the United States in the battle to return "our" cup, lost for only the second time in 1995. Of course, this epic sea battle will be televised globally for 16 weeks, thereby making the marketing guys salivate like Pavlov's puppies. But would you believe that Ford's real motivation for this America's Cup sponsorship is to get the engineers in on the fun?

Faster Development

Ford and Visteon are assisting the team with a number of technologies: surface design, fluid dynamics, materials research, and computerized controls. Craig H. Mulhauser, Visteon's president explains, "Our participation with AmericaOne is a natural extension of our motorsport racing program. It has become an integral part of our product development strategy. We are applying racing criteria to our product development efforts—criteria which have helped us accelerate time to market, increase product robustness and improve quality. AmericaOne provides another venue for Visteon to explore technology transfer and the application of specialized processes to mass production." The development of the AmericaOne boats is happening quite similarly to the development of a new car, using much of the same Ford technology to model and prove digital prototypes, then build and verify their designs.

CAE At Sea

Perhaps the most basic technology assistance that Ford provides is computer-assisted engineering (CAE). Ford's Scientific Research Laboratory created and optimized the surface quality of the keel, bulb and winglets for the AmericaOne boats. Surface design software simulates light reflecting off of a CAD model to highlight any flaws in the surface, which is then manipulated to produce the smoothest, most ideal model. (Of course, finite element analysis is used to ensure that that structure can withstand the stresses it will be subjected to.) This same process is used, for instance, to evaluate the surfaces of vehicle bodies. A NURBS translation of the CAD data into a CAM program will allow Ford to accurately machine the keel at its Rouge Tool & Die facility (Dearborn, MI). The 2,000-pound keel starts as a 6,000-pound block of high-strength stainless steel before it's milled and heat-treated. Ford is building the second of two keels for the sailing team.

Digital Air

Ford developed a virtual wind tunnel, the "Power Wall" (referring to the wall-size 3-D projection screen), which uses software to model aerodynamic properties and wind noise for vehicles. This has been adapted for theAmericaOne team to develop optimum sail and mast designs, based on anticipated wind conditions during a race. Similar principles were used to study the flow of water around the keel and appendages. The software works by creating computational cells that represent areas as small as 2 mm and include air velocity and pressure data. Cells are generated to develop a model of the entire structure. It is significant that this simulation is not just a surface modeling approach, but calculates a volumetric model. A typical vehicle study requires 8 to14 million of these cells. The sail models took 51 million cells, making them the largest computational aerodynamics simulation that Ford has ever run on the Power Wall.

Materials Advances

The AmericaOne boats have carbon fiber hulls and several titanium components, including the eight-pound lifting eye that can carry the entire 24-ton weight of the yacht. It's no secret that Ford (and everyone else in the auto industry) are looking to lightweight, high-strength materials like these in their quest to build lighter, more efficient, safer vehicles. Being able to work with advanced materials in a racing environment gives Ford researchers an opportunity to further test and develop materials under real-world conditions. In the case of the carbon fiber hulls, Ford is performing non-destructive testing using thermography. By rapidly heating a composite and then infrared scanning its surface, imperfections can be detected as disruptions in the heat emission.

ECUs for Sail Boats

Just as a car has an engine control unit (ECU) that monitors and controls engine functions, America's Cup boats have advanced computer monitoring (ACM) systems that give skippers information on how to operate the boat. There are numerous variables affecting navigation and speed during a race, including: actual boat speed, boat position, wind direction, wind speed, pitch, and other technical sailing variables. By reading this data and comparing it to predicted calculations, ACM systems can suggest optimum paths for the skipper to follow. This is similar to the way an ECU computes fuel tables and spark advance. One part of this package is a telemetry system provided by Visteon. This system is very similar to the ones used in Formula One and CART race cars. A key development in this system, specifically for AmericaOne, was to make the electronics more robust to withstand the rigors of sailing, including the salinity of the environment.

Everybody Wins

While Ford's technology contribution to the AmericaOne effort may seem to be a one-way street (i.e. Ford gives the sailing team access to its technology and AmericaOne puts a logo on the sail), the Ford engineering staff really gains something significant through the experience. Neil Ressler, Ford's vice president of Research and Technology, explains that "engineers involved in racing come back to the fold with better skills." These include a sense of urgency, a respect for efficiency, a broad outlook, a competitive instinct, and a source of pride in their work. After an experience in racing, Ford engineers have a practiced hand at decreasing product development times by being more creative and efficient, simply because the pressure is on. As they say in the racing community, "The race is going to happen, with or without you." Ford will definitely be on deck when this race happens.

Why Race? It's All About Time

Why do automotive companies get involved in motorsports?

One answer: Marketing. As in "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." While there might be something to that in the context of NASCAR (even though a Taurus at Daytona has only the name in common with a Taurus built in Atlanta or Chicago), it is something of a stretch when it comes to CART and Formula One racing (does anyone really equate an engine or engine control module in a race car with something that they might pick up at a dealership?).

Neil Ressler, Ford's vice president-Research and Vehicle Technology, says the reason Ford is involved in racing—and it participates in making Dale Jarrett, Michael Andretti, Jackie Stewart's F1 team, and plenty others go fast—is because of tech-nology transfer: "And not parts from CART to next year's model," he stresses. In fact, he acknowledges that racing represents an "investment with a delayed payoff."

Although it is all about accelerating activities, the delay is a direct consequence of the fact that consumer vehicle programs take longer to execute than any one racing season—more than a few seasons, generally speaking.

Talking about Formula One racing, the creme de la creme of the motorsports world, Ford spokesman Ken Zino observes, "Money isn't the constraint; time is." First up, he explains that with major companies going wheel-to-wheel on the tracks—Ford, Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda—there is not much of a likelihood that any one of them is going to skimp on spending vis-a-vis the others. He points out that the real issue comes down to the limitation on the amount of track testing that any of the race teams can do. Because there are limits, all involved—drivers, engineers, support staff—must take advantage of literally every second they are out on the track.

Which means in today's world, engineering analysis is at the forefront of the racing programs, not just literal seat-of-the-pants inputs from drivers.

Hau Thai-Tang, Lincoln LS development manager and a man who worked on the 1993 CART team with world driving champions Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell, explains, "The high-pressure racing experience teaches you to work in a disciplined manner. You have to have a plan and conduct the tests efficiently. We then use that discipline to gain the knowledge we need from a limited number of prototype test vehicles." When time is limited, the effectiveness of expenditures—be it of the engineers or the equipment—is critical.

In addition to Thai-Tang, there were four other engineers who were on the LS suspension development team who had been assigned to racing teams by Ford. One, Jay O'Connell, actually spends time behind the wheel of IMSA GTU sports cars, so he has the perspective of both a driver and an engineer.

While there may be a general notion of racing as being a comparatively subjective endeavor, Thai-Tang points out that with few exceptions (e.g., O'Connell), race engineers don't drive cars, so they must supplement their understanding of a driver's impressions gained during tests and races with objective information. This same approach is necessary for effective consumer vehicle development. So, in the case of LS suspension development, they used:

  • A four-post shaker to refine the spring and shock absorber tuning. . .as used by the Benetton Formula One team
  • DIVAS (development in-vehicle acquisition system) for real-time data acquisition and analysis. . .similar to the instrumentation used in CART racing
  • ADAMS computer simulation software that allows the mechanical dynamics of a structure to be analyzed. . .as used by a number of race teams.

The LS chassis is all new: there are no carry-over parts from other platforms. One race-inspired tool used for quick development is the purpose-built Parameter Development Vehicle (PDV), which has a four-section tubular frame and resembles a full-sized version of a car that might be made with an Erector Set. Thai-Tang explains that just as a race car can have its driving dynamics adjusted during a pit stop (e.g., downforce can be dialed in to suit the handling), the driveable PDV permits the engineers to adjust parameters including roll center height, anti-lift and squat, roll steer, compliance steer, caster angle, and trail in a matter of minutes, not days, as is ordinarily the case with prototype vehicles. The PDV's quick adjustability, coupled with data acquisition gear and articulate test drivers, allowed them to reduce the number of LS prototypes built.

Why race? Well, Thai-Tang indicates that by using the fast thinking and engineering tools that are typical of top teams, they are able to minimize investment and capital expenditures for consumer vehicle programs. What's more: What company couldn't use engineers who are driven to get things done ASAP?


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