Observer: A tale of two manufacturers

Jan. 1, 2020
TROY, MICH. — A $15 MILLION wind tunnel that can replicate virtually any climate is one of many product testing success stories on which Behr Hella Service hangs its hat.
TROY, MICH. — A $15 MILLION wind tunnel that can replicate virtually any climate is one of many product testing success stories on which Behr Hella Service hangs its hat.

At Behr Hella Service's North American research headquarters, its air conditioning and engine cooling products are engineered to the most exacting of OE standards. The company believes this acquired knowledge makes its aftermarket offerings that much more valuable.

"We make sure the aftermarket has the same products available," says Dirk Beckmann, president of Behr Hella Service North America. A few years ago, the two companies, Behr and Hella, decided to join Behr's climate control know-how with Hella's lighting and electronics expertise.

Even though the aftermarket is a relatively small component of the combined companies' operations (about 10 percent for Behr and about 33 percent for Hella), it's a vital component to the manufacturer's strategy.

For one thing, Beckmann says, Behr Hella Service is the exclusive distributor of PAO-Oil 68, which is a universal oil for shop A/C service recovery machines.

"There are strong advantages to this oil," he says. The oil absorbs humidity to keep the compressor dry. And this "one-size-fits-all" product veers from competing oil, with which different blends are required for different machines, Beckmann adds.

Tunnel vision

Motor Age was recently granted a tour of the Troy, Mich., facility, the company's North American research and development headquarters, which revealed a number of innovative procedures Behr Hella uses to test its thermal control products.

One room is filled to the ceiling with competitors' products, which are used to compile benchmark data. This information is compared to similar benchmarks around the world.

Simulation rooms can test every possible airflow configuration and combination to calculate activities like the clearing pattern of a windshield. A durability area, where thermal control products are subjected to varying pressures and thermal cycles that mimic the life of a vehicle, is abuzz with engineers who carefully calculate results.

In another testing area, a system calorimeter simulates the systems of an entire vehicle, while a module calorimeter measures various components, like heater cores, individually.

An anechoic (anti-echo) chamber is used to calculate the noise that heating and cooling products emit. Carmakers have become incredibly particular over how much sound they will allow components to make, says Niranjan Humbad, acoustic validation manager. The anechoic chamber is so tightly soundproof that the heavy silence within produces an audible buzz to those who stand still long enough to listen.

"OEMs are focusing on quieter vehicles," says Humbad.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a reflecting room, where sound continually bounces from wall to wall like a tennis ball until diffused. But ultimately, Humbad admits, analyzing noise is a subjective art.

The Troy climatic wind tunnel is perhaps the beacon of the facility's technical advancements, as it's one of the few labs of its kind that can test cooling and air conditioning systems on all vehicle classes, from the smallest car up to Class 8 trucks.

A flex nozzle allows three different air positions to accommodate varying vehicle sizes. It also features a high-powered chassis dynamometer that can provide up to 400 hp per axle. Most tunnels only have a fixed front dyno, says Fred Pumper, wind tunnel test manager. "That chassis dyno is a giant treadmill," he says.

Behr Hella makes entire front-end modules for automakers, which it sells as separate components to the aftermarket.

A solarium allows researchers to control nearly every possible temperature to learn how thermal components respond to different climates. OEMs look for details such as how quickly a vehicle reaches comfort levels in different parts of the interior. Other factors, like air humidity and road load, also are tested in the wind tunnel, which represents an approximately $15 million investment.

Because of our country's ongoing war, the Troy wind tunnel facility has seen a large number of military vehicles lately, Pumper adds.

The wind tunnel is even requested by non-customers, says Indira Sadikovic, communications manager for Behr America. A similar wind tunnel testing facility is in operation in Stuttgart, Germany, offering global consistency for the company's research.

German partners

Both privately held companies are based in Germany. And the agreement between Behr and Hella, forged a couple of years ago, has been successful so far, according to company officials.

"Behr Hella Service is a 50/50 joint venture," says Harrel Alcorn, general manager for Behr Hella Service America. "It requires an intense amount of communication and an intense amount of trust." And it helps that both companies have headquarters in the same country.

Along with Hella, Behr has a number of other joint venture partners around the globe.

One of the many results of this partnership is the aforementioned full front-end module, including lights, plastic components and radiators, heat exchangers and cooling modules, among numerous other front-end items, that the company puts together for carmakers. These modules are made through a joint venture with another company called Plastic Omnium.

However, for the aftermarket, these modules are only available as individual components, and some components are considered proprietary, though officials would not provide more details as to which components fall under this category.

Behr also is celebrating 100 years of operation.

-Chris Miller

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