The Transformation at ZF

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the aspects of the industry’s transition to electric vehicles that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention is that suppliers are responsible for large portions of a vehicle, so as there is the move from internal combustion engines to electric motors, as there is an increase in the importance of software, suppliers need to undergo a transition. . .or they will find themselves under water in short order.

However, making the switch isn’t like throwing a switch.

There are existing competencies within an organization—the things that allowed it to be selected as a supplier in the first place.

But now those competencies, while not completely irrelevant—let’s not lose sight of the fact that internal combustion engines aren’t going away for several more years—are less important within a supplier’s portfolio.

And there is the abiding issue of having the financial wherewithal to make the change, both from the standpoints of people and installed base of capital equipment.

Regardless of what list of the top suppliers you consult, you’ll find ZF right up there.

(Image: ZF)

Going Mobility

Martin Fischer heads up ZF’s operations in North America.

He describes what ZF is now as “a technology supplier to the mobility industry.”

Were you to ask someone in the industry about what ZF is just a few years ago, they’d probably answer, “The company that makes those impressive eight-speed automatic transmissions.”

While the company continues to produce those eight-speeds, Fischer says on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” that they’re not going to be making more investments in eight-speeds.

There are other things on the agenda.

Fischer says the focus today is on technologies related to autonomous driving, electric drive systems and components, and integrated safety, technologies that are both physical and digital.

To help the company move to new places, Fischer says they first started out with small teams that developed products, then integrated those people into the larger company so that everyone becomes involved.

The classic portfolio that ZF has had is undergoing a significant change, with everything from controllers that it is collaborating with NVIDIA on to electric motors to steer-by-wire systems and more. Not the sort of things that one might imagine a “classic” supplier would have the wherewithal to do–at automotive scale and quality.

What ZF is doing is essentially a masterclass in maintaining relevance in a changing industry.

Talking to Fischer are “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke of Automotive Engineering, and me.

You can see the show here.

How the Automotive Supply Base Is Being Transformed

Yes, there is still a need for some of yesterday’s tech in the auto industry today. But there is a greater need for tomorrow’s tech right now. And here’s what suppliers are doing to realize that

By Gary S. Vasilash

When people say that the auto industry is “undergoing the biggest transformation since its very beginnings,” they generally mean that the OEMs are having to vigorously change the product offerings that they are producing, putting plugs where they once had fuel filler ports, putting in drive motors where they once had engines, putting batteries in a place where there were once fuel tanks.

And that is just for the electric vehicle part of the change.

There are a variety of other factors that are driving change in automotive, such as the addition of automated driving capabilities and the need to address heightened expectations on the interiors of vehicles, whether this takes the form of things like comfort or infotainment.

By and large, the changes seem to be challenges for the OEMs.

Which is not entirely the case.

Let’s face it: most of what is assembled into a given vehicle is not produced by the OEM. It comes from suppliers.

So the transformation of the auto industry is having arguably a greater impact on the supply base as not only must it provide OEMs with what they want now, but what they will want in the future.

ZF ProAI automotive-grade supercomputer. (Image: ZF)

On this special edition of “Autoline After Hours” my colleague John McElroy and I talk with Martin Fischer, member of the Board of Management of ZF and president of ZF North America, and Phil Eyler, president and CEO of Gentherm.

ZF is one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, and while historically—and currently—known for such products as its nine-speed transmissions, the company is undergoing a change as it focuses on domains including autonomous driving, electromobility, integrated safety, motion control, and digitalization and software.

Yes, the company has even developed an automotive supercomputer, the ProAI.

Then there’s Gentherm, which is a specialist in thermal electric devices. In 1996 the company launched its first heated and cooled car seat and in the subsequent years has taken a strong position in that market area.

Yet recently it has invested in technology for thermal management of electric vehicle batteries.

McElroy and I talk with Fischer and Eyler about how their companies are working through—and ahead of—demands—today’s and tomorrow’s—they are addressing as automotive suppliers.

Their approaches range from organizing skunkworks to create new products to taking existing technologies from other market segments, like medical, to apply to automotive applications.

You can see it all here.

ZF Investing Big in Truck Transmissions

One of the consequences of the pandemic is the increase in the number of commercial vehicles on the roads—as in, for example, all of those FedEx, UPS and Amazon Prime trucks crowding in suburban neighborhoods like a street in New York City pre-pandemic.

Who knew there was such a demand for home deliveries?

So to meet the demands for medium-duty commercial trucks (as well as buses and heavy-duty pickups), ZF has announced that it is investing $200-million in its plant in Gray Court, South Carolina, to produce its ZF PowerLine 8-speed automatic transmission.

This is a new transmission, as it went into production at the ZF HQ production facility in Friedrichshafen, Germany, at the end of 2020; the factory in South Carolina is scheduled to start exclusively supplying the North American market in 2023.

ZF PowerLine 8-speed transmission for truck applications. (Image: ZF)

A couple points about the transmission:

  • Although it is an 8-speed, Christian Feldhaus, Director Commercial Vehicle Driveline Technology North America, ZF, says, “ZF PowerLine proves equal, but in most cases, higher performance and efficiency than other transmissions with 9 and 10 speeds.” Or more gears are not necessarily better.
  • In addition to which, although there is increased attention to electric commercial vehicles—such as those Amazon will be getting from Rivian and General Motors’ new BrightDrop—one might wonder about a transmission ostensibly for ICE applications. Feldhaus: “With its modular design, PowerLine is prepared for mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants, making it a true technology bridge to future mobility.”

Arguably, post-pandemic there may be a falling off of home-delivery demands. But odds are people who have found it to be a convenient way to get things may stay with it.

So there’s going to be a need for a lot of transmissions.–gsv