BELLEVILLE, Mich. - The management team of Ricardo Inc. sees more work in its future as automakers shift their powertrains from traditional internal combustion engines toward hybrid powertrains and fuel cells.
Ricardo, which launched its North American business unit a decade ago, could see hybrid powertrain projects account for 40 percent of its sales within five years, said Peter Brown, vice president of powertrain projects. Ricardo Inc.'s sales totaled $67 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Currently, only about 10 percent of Ricardo's sales come from these projects.
Ricardo Inc. is the North American unit of publicly held Ricardo PLC. The parent company, based in Shoreham, England, posted sales of $180 million in fiscal 2000. Ricardo has been engineering engine and powertrains since the early 1900s.
The company's hybrid solutions run from compressed natural gas, cleaner burning diesels and fuel cells.
'If the activity is in hybrid propulsion systems, it may mean less activity in our other systems,' said Jeremy Holt, president of Ricardo Inc. and executive director of Ricardo PLC. 'We really see a rebalancing of our activities in this field.'
Ricardo's hybrid projects
To position itself as a leader in the hybrid powertrain market, Ricardo in late October assigned leaders to oversee hybrid projects.
One of Ricardo's current U.S. projects involves collaboration with Ricardo's sister companies in England and Germany, as well as two unidentified suppliers. The group's goal is to develop an alternative-fuel hybrid propulsion system for a vehicle Holt says is about the same size as a Ford Focus sedan or a bit larger. Although he declined to reveal the vehicle's name, Holt expects the project to be complete by July 2001.
The group's second mission is either to create a demonstration vehicle or to modify extensively an existing vehicle to house the new propulsion system. This part of the project will be complete in July 2002.
At a time when many auto parts suppliers are cutting back on personnel, Ricardo added more than 100 employees this year, raising total employment to 385. The majority of the new employees are engineers.
'At one time, companies like Ricardo were called upon to do small, isolated projects,' said Brown. 'More and more, we're being integrated into complete teams to work hand in hand with automotive OEMs and a couple of suppliers to bring everything together. I've seen a significant change over the last three years.'
Planning for the future
To meet these increasing demands, Ricardo will invest about $10 million throughout the entire group toward research and development next year. A large portion of these funds will be dedicated to hybrid research.
Some of Ricardo's most recent research involved finding a way to make power-generating fuel cells more efficient during cold starts, when temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit inhibit the chemical reaction between the hydrogen and air that generates electricity. At the SAE World Congress in March, Ricardo will present a paper that outlines a solution.
Ricardo also plans to alter some of its test equipment, including its software test programs, so they are better equipped to gather data showing how the new hybrid propulsion technologies will perform once they are placed in vehicles.
In addition to research projects, Ricardo also is working on five hybrid propulsion programs for automakers. Vehicles that use Ricardo's hybrid systems are expected to be on the road in 2005.
Said Brown: 'After people have gotten used to hybrids and all the things they can do, not only fuel efficiency but making the whole vehicle appear to run quieter and smoother, people will look back at the cars we're driving today and say they're pretty crude.'