The 10 Biggest Mistakes Made in Electrical Designs
Electrical systems have historically been treated as many things by powersports manufacturers—a red-headed step-child, an elephant in the corner or even an afterthought. This is changing. In the 21st century, the one thing OEMs cannot afford to do is treat electrical systems as unimportant, and those that don’t will have a competitive advantage.
The following are some of the most common mistakes powersports companies make with their electronics development.
1. Insufficient charging system power.
This will result in dead batteries, dim headlights, poor accessory performance, perplexed dealer technicians and most significantly, dissatisfied customers. On the other hand, a maximized charging system can be the foundation for game-changing innovation. For example, the electric-assist power steering system available on 2007 Yamaha Grizzly 700 FIs required a 200 watt upgrade to their stator. ATV OEMs which do not have a surplus of electrical power available will have to deal with this inadequacy first if they decide to release their own electrical power steering systems.
It is always easiest to specify a high-output magneto charging system when a new engine platform is designed. Sufficient room must be allowed in the crankcase casting for the stator and flywheel, and provisions for cooling the stator may also need to be made. While it is sometimes possible to upgrade an existing magneto-based charging system, the cost versus return is substantially less favorable than just designing it with a surplus of power to being with. I always pushed for higher charging system outputs at the major OEMs I worked for when a new engine was being designed. In all cases, there was a need for the extra power discovered before the models even went to production. In addition, with the explosion in aftermarket accessories extra charging power will be demanded regardless of if the production electrical system needs it or not. The bottom line is that no customer ever complains about having too much electrical power, but they will definitely complain if there is not enough.
2. Not allocating the electrical system design team resources equivalent to that of the mechanical design teams.
Powersports OEMS, by and large, have staffs who are 99% mechanical in their expertise. Yet, if all of the electrical components on the vehicle from ignition coils to the taillight are added together, the per cent of vehicle cost that is electrical is closer to 10%, meaning 1% of the staff is responsible for 10% of the content. Many aftermarket companies do not have one person with electrical engineering training on their entire staff. The quality and breadth of powersports electrical designs has lagged due to this design imbalance.
In today’s powersports business model, every manufacturer is in a rush to have a little more suspension travel, more horsepower, a better chassis and other features. A paradigm shift is needed. Devoting more resources to electrical development offers an enormous opportunity for more satisfied customers, cost reductions, warranty reductions and product differentiation. The next great powersports technology revolution will have more to do with electrical than mechanical design, and the first company to embrace this strategy will benefit tremendously. Many industries are littered with the shells of once-great brands which were overcome by technology revolutions that relegated them to the ash heap of history. It is only logical that such technology revolutions allow the potential for small ‘David’-type companies to set the ‘Goliaths’ of the powersports world on their head. It is a good bet that electronic or mechatronic technologies will be at the heart of the coming sea-change.
3. Not planning for hose, wire and cable routes.
Poor wire, hose and cable routes can cause very expensive problems. Studies conducted for powersports manufacturers reveal annual warranty costs upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year due to overlooking this detail. Product safety recalls can also be triggered by these problems and the resultant lawsuits have the potential to cause a smaller manufacturer to close their doors.
One good example of this is throttle cable routing. Throttle cables have not changed in many years. The same goes with how they are routed—being ‘zip-tied’ to the bars on many handlebar-steered vehicles. As every service technician can attest, improperly installed throttle cables can cause problems ranging from engine stalls to serious safety issues. However, very little progress has been made in controlling their placement.
Unfortunately, hose, wire and cable routing problems are an inherent result of the design process at most OEMs. Manufacturers usually do not design routes for hoses, wires and cables concurrent to the rest of the vehicle model. Instead, they lay out the vehicle and then make a last-minute demand for their electrical gurus to find a place for the wiring to go. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see a friend’s brand new ATV have wires hanging down inside a fender, very vulnerable to being torn off. And this quad was from a company with a reputation for rock-solid reliability. The tragedy is, these types of problems are completely avoidable with some common sense and design process control.
4. Not designing for serviceability.
As much as 60% of all electrical warranty is due to misdiagnosis. This problem is another offshoot of manufacturer tendencies to address electrical designs at the tail end of the vehicle design cycle. This approach does not allow electrical engineering staff time to develop useful electrical troubleshooting procedures for service manual creation.
Common serviceability problems include out of date schematic diagrams, worthless troubleshooting flowcharts and meaningless or non-existent diagnostic blink codes. In addition, electrical connections are often hard to access for service. If it takes a long time for a service technician to get at a part for testing, he is almost certainly going to replace it regardless.
Manufacturers should adhere to a few basic rules for electrical-system serviceability. Some of them include: Centralize components into an electrical center, but avoid placing electrically noisy items next to low-current signals. Specify light bulbs that are off-the-shelf if possible, keep schematic diagrams up-to-date, and locate electrical connections where they can be reached with minimal labor time. If new electrical features are added, have all supporting technical information available for dealers from the moment the product is released. Develop an iron-clad specification for wire color functions. Continuity in wire color functions will help technicians to grow their familiarity with evolving electrical systems. Use two functions per wire color if the vehicle has EFI, one function dedicated to the engine electronics and one dedicated to the chassis electronics. Carbureted vehicles should only need one function per wire color. Another best practice is to have company development technicians and engineers maintain a database of problems they encountered during production, along with how they solved them. This database can be tapped to develop the entire service manual, not just the electrical section. Add diagnostic capability to components that have advanced microprocessors and large amounts of I/O such as speedometers. Diagnostic capability is often available for free by simply adding a little more software programming into these components.
One rule to always keep in mind—assume that the people who will be servicing the vehicle have no electrical training. Because of this fact, electrical system design-for-serviceability must be emphasized all the more.
Page 25. Not protecting electrical connections.
Let’s make this simple. On an ATV or ATV aftermarket product all electrical connections carrying less than 1 amp should be properly sealed, period. Some designers will nit-pick whether the threshold should be set at 100 milliamps plus or minus, but what is most important is that manufacturers commit in general to paying the added cost for having sealed connectors. ATV manufacturers that say that they will not warranty any usages where water is above the floorboards or even above the CVT clutch cover are living in a dream world. ATVs should have waterproofing specifications nearly equal to a personal watercraft.
However, implementing sealed connectors is an art unto itself. Most sealed connections are actually made for the automotive industry and because of this, careful attention must be given to supply-chain management.
6. Not designing for nighttime operation.
I have seen some ATVs and snowmobiles that look great on the showroom floor and even performed well on a daytime test drive. But when the quad or sled went out for a nighttime ride, the lighting was so poor that any speed over 30mph was a white-knuckle experience. Or, the angle of incidence on the LCD was so bad that the digits in the LCD were watery at night unless I leaned my head 2 feet to the right of center where the symbols became more clear. Another common problem is having handlebar controls on which it is impossible to see what the switch settings are. These real-life encounters confirm that nighttime testing should be a mandatory part of the development process. Have people of different heights sit on the vehicle and evaluate the features at night and during the day. Evaluate the features for both stand-up and sit-down riding. Technical limitations may prevent a designer from making a headlight or speedometer perfect for every possible use, but at least execute the design for reasonable night-time use—and be sure it is tested that way.
7. Believing ‘all electrical parts are the same’
Not all batteries are the same. Not all headlights are the same. Not all key switches are the same, and not all wire harnesses are the same. More importantly—a battery is not a headlight is not an electronic module. For a powersports manufacturer, the problem of lumping all electrical components together is chiefly caused, again, by a mechanically-oriented design and management team who wants to throw everything ‘over the wall’ to their electrical design staff and/or suppliers.
If you are having your ‘electrical guy’ develop something he has never done before, ask him for his thoughts on the project and listen to what he says he needs to do his job. It should be viewed no differently than asking a transmission engineer to develop his first chassis. Even the most brilliant engineer will have a learning curve on developing something new, and he may need extra resources including added personnel while developing the new system. Even if inexperience isn’t an issue, some electronic and mechatronic projects are much more labor intensive than others. It can be advantageous to look for contract engineering help to be sure all of your current and new designs get done properly. When I developed electronic transmission shifting at one OE, having a contract engineer to do the legwork of updating schematics and overseeing lab tests freed me up to be sure that the overall system was developed successfully.
8. Being ignorant of suppliers and costs of electrical components.
Here is a typical scenario that has happened with automotive parts in use by powersports OEMs. A manufacturer is utilizing an automotive industry component. The auto manufacturer stops ordering the part number for some reason. The orders for that part number change from hundreds of thousands to nothing in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, a powersports OEM may only be ordering the part number in the hundreds or thousands annually. As company policy, the supplier discontinues the part number or makes it available in only service-level volumes because it no longer pays to tie up their manufacturing capabilities for such small runs. When this happens, there are at least a couple of possible scenarios: 1. If good sales and purchasing representatives are in the loop, the powersports OEM will be made aware of the change and be given three to six months to specify and order a replacement part. Testing of the proposed substitute part will be given emergency status. With a lot of scrambling, the supplier and the Powersports manufacturer are able to validate a substitute part to keep production going.
Scenario 2 is not as desirable: If there are not good sales reps and purchasing agents in the supply chain, the supplier to the powersports company one day realizes that they are out of parts. The powersports OEM may then have to shut its assembly line until the problem is resolved or substitute a similar part from the manufacturer without thorough testing. Scenario 2 can result in problems from a production stoppage to sending out an unproven part number that ends up having problems. Either way, the OEM loses money. Bottom line—if a powersports OEM is utilizing an off-the-shelf automotive part, it is critical that all parties understand the long-term availability of the part.
Another fact to keep in mind is that within the same supplier, different divisions may have different capabilities. If you have been satisfied with the quality and delivery of widget A, don’t assume that the company is certain to also provide widget B. Ask if the same team from top to bottom with the same manufacturing capabilities will also be delivering the widget B that you desire. If they aren’t, you may need to validate the part from the new team at the proven supplier the same way that you would validate a new part from a new supplier.
Not being aware of component costs is often a factor of treating electrical components as an afterthought. Whenever I take the time to investigate cost reduction for an OEM, there are often hidden gems everywhere—many just for the asking.
For example, I once asked our wire harness supplier to give me an itemized breakdown of the harness cost including labor. Wire harness connectors that are pull-to-seat often cause a harness manufacturer to have to hand-carry harnesses backwards at least once during the assembly process because most harness assembly lines are designed to flow for push-to-seat connectors. The hand-carrying alone was adding close to a dollar of labor per harness because they had to carry them downstairs 1 floor in their building. During that same investigation, I discovered that there was a substantial per-harness cost penalty associated with buying a particular version of an unsealed connector. We also bought a similar part that was much less, but had a redundant ‘keying’ feature. We had the supplier purchase keyed versions of the connectors and manually remove the keys for use where the less expensive connector was specified—an operation that only cost 5 cents per harness. Since we bought more than 100,000 harnesses per year with several of these connectors, the effort changes reduced harness costs by more than six figures annually. There was no reduction in robusticity associated with the new process.
9. Locating low-current components and wires next to electrically noisy devices.
Magnetic fields around ignition coils cause electromagnetic emissions. Aging spark plug wires can lose voltage capacity. Many voltage regulator designs are also notoriously noisy. Keep sensitive low-current signal wires like those on speed sensors and oxygen sensors at least 3 to 4 inches away from these devices, or utilize cabling with a grounded shield if the minimum spacing can’t be maintained. Otherwise, inaccurate speed readings or poor emissions controls are just a couple of the setbacks waiting to happen due to electrical interference.
10. Throwing an electrical design ‘Over The Wall’ to other departments.
An engineering design will be dealt with not just by manufacturing, but also the service department, quality assurance, and logistics—possibly even other internal departments. It is assumed that procurement and marketing have been involved since day one. Who is responsible for the success of a new electrical project? The answer is—all of the above. But who will be held accountable if the component or system has problems? Engineering, and that’s why they must stay engaged with the other departments to be sure they are carrying out their responsibilities. For example, for one OEM, I led a division-wide initiative to switch from older-technology ‘flooded’ batteries to newer technology AGM batteries. There was no question based on our testing that the AGM batteries performed substantially better than the flooded versions, if they were activated and maintained properly. We also knew that many dealers did not take the time or had the equipment to activate the batteries properly, so we decided to have it done at the battery manufacturer. That’s great, except that an activated battery will gradually discharge and sulfate to failure if it is not charged occasionally.
a first-in, first-out system in the warehouse with rollered shelving to rotate the stock of incoming batteries from the supplier. Then we implemented, for the first time ever, first-in, first-out rotation of finished goods in the ATV storage yard to keep the batteries as fresh as possible. There can be a substantial amount of turnover in warehouse departments, and other factors contributing to inconsistent processes, so I personally paid visits to these areas to ensure that the FIFO policy was being carried out. I asked employees if they knew about the policy, and whether they followed it. I would also occasionally visit with the supervisors in these departments to hold their feet to the fire on the FIFO system. This aspect of the battery program went very well.
Another aspect of the program hit a brick wall and caused warranty problems. AGM batteries require a special battery charger to activate and charge them. The best of these chargers can also recover a sulfated battery and thus prevent a warranty hit. The service department manager said that relations with dealerships were too much of a concern to force the dealers to buy the new chargers. He said he would take a ‘wait and see’ attitude on the new batteries before attempting to force expensive new chargers on the dealers. The lack of an enforced program at the dealership level meant that some batteries went bad due to aging in the dealer’s storage yards. Right or wrong, I was held accountable for the warranty that ensued.
I also led a new ATV instrument cluster program. My policy with any new complex component was to bring warranty or rejected parts back for inspection 100% of the time for the first year to stay on top of any problems. We began having rejects due to a circuit failing in the speedometer. As rejects piled up, the program began to gain a bad reputation and something had to be done. An inspection of the parts revealed a complete over-current failure of the trace on the speedometer circuit board that could not have been caused by the speedometer manufacturer. I traced the problem to the first electrical test station on our factory assembly line, where they occasionally connected the power supply backwards causing a dead short in one circuit. I instructed quality assurance to bill any such failed parts back to the line as scrap, and to stop reporting these particular failures as supplier PPM. Once the assembly line started getting charged for the problem rather than the vendor, the line fail-safed the process and the problem went away. The supplier’s failed PPM was reduced to acceptable levels. Lessons learned—engage beyond your cubicle walls to ensure the success of a new electronics project. And sometimes to get an internal or external partner to change their ways you have to make them feel it in their pocket book.
Gary Gustafson is president of G-Force Consulting, a company that provides design, marketing and industry analysis services to ATV, snowmobile and motorcycle manufacturers. http://www.g-forceconsulting.com/.