Successful companies respond to the volatility caused by innovation, new technologies, competition, economics, and other variables. Progressive organizations depend on their ability to anticipate and prepare for unpredictable or uncontrollable opportunities and challenges for both themselves, and their customers, to survive. The growing response of Freudenberg Sealing Technologies to the increasing use of electronic power steering (EPS) serves as a prime example.
Freudenberg has built a reputation for providing seals and supporting the automotive aftermarket and offers an established product line of aftermarket hydraulic power steering seal kits branded as TransTec®. However, several trends in OEM technology indicate that the hydraulic steering aftermarket will gradually disappear because of EPS.
Rather than relying on a pump and hydraulically assisted steering gear that requires seals, EPS systems utilize electronic hardware and sensors integrated with the mechanical components of the steering system. In North America alone, 92 percent of all newly produced vehicles will have EPS by 2020. This trend will produce both aftermarket challenges and opportunities.
As the remanufactured hydraulic steering market has matured, complex technologies that once required higher levels of engineering have become commodities. Companies need to look beyond existing product lines to provide customers with value is now vital.
Complex problems require thoughtful solutions
While EPS eliminates the need for a hydraulic steering pump driven by the engine, hoses, and fluid, the systems introduce new levels of complexity. The complexity of the EPS system may vary depending on several versions of electric steering assist. Vehicle manufacturers have developed electric steering column assist (C-EPS), pinion assist (P-EPS), and direct drive rack assist (D-EPS). Each version of the technology presents different challenges to the aftermarket in terms of the product range required to service each system and the variation in systems from vehicle to vehicle.
EPS systems use input signals for vehicle speed, engine speed, anti-lock braking, electronic speed control, and traction control sensors to determine the amount of required steering assist. Inputs and signals from these various systems are managed by a control module dedicated to the electric steering system. All the information received and transmitted by the control module flows through the CAN bus (Controller Area Network) of the vehicle.
This level of complexity requires a different approach for troubleshooting and the aftermarket replacement of EPS units. The Freudenberg aftermarket organization anticipated this challenge by partnering with Sercore, a company that combines remanufacturing experience with the development of the VcarSys portable EPS diagnostic and testing tool.
The VcarSys tool allows technicians to simulate vehicle functional behaviors while reading errors produced by the EPS system and enables the use of on-board diagnostics in modern vehicles and works much like a rebuilder’s test bench, helping to validate rebuilds.
The art of customer engagement
Freudenberg team members also embraced several customer-focused strategic initiatives. Conversations with small garage owners, industrial level remanufacturers, small and mid-size regional remanufacturers, and corporate clients about EPS systems and the remanufactured market prompted leadership to move in a new direction.
“With the onset of this new technology, we had conversations with our customers and the takeaway was always ‘We know it’s coming, but we’re not sure what to do about it’,” said Chris Petronella, Director of Product Development at Freudenberg’s aftermarket organization. “We made a conscious decision to deal with these changes and ask ‘Who do we want to be? Seal kit providers or application experts who can bring solutions to the market.”
While questions and challenges persisted, Freudenberg decided to move its aftermarket organization beyond its well-established niche as a seal kit provider. A change in strategic direction pushed the company toward a new objective of building an expert application team that could offer complete service to aftermarket customers.
Refining this strategy has required recognizing that a tailored approach for diverse customers works best. Remanufacturers have different objectives and service different channels. Yet, the core of the strategy remains focused on testing, diagnosis and repair.
“Our aftermarket customer base is diverse, ranging from independent garages to corporations. Our approach for each customer is tailored, but the strategy remains the same: we engage with customers who are ready to take these steps,” Petronella commented. “Adopting new tools for EPS systems has enabled our customers to view EPS from a systemic perspective and as a result, they can quickly achieve the same comfort level that they have with traditionally remanufactured hydraulic steering units.”
Freudenberg also established additional resources for its customers. Rather than simply trust that technicians would know how to repair EPS components, the aftermarket team instituted customer training on the new technology and test methods. This training -- in combination with customer knowledge about mechanical steering system repairs – is helping companies transition to a new technology and continue servicing their customers.
Positioning for the future
Numerous EPS aftermarket challenges remain. The number of EPS applications and the rate of vehicles entering the point-in-life-cycle for aftermarket services has begun to outpace solutions. On a global scale, each region has different levels of maturity and needs for EPS aftermarket services. The wide range of aftermarket maturity seen from Europe to East Asia requires tailored and coordinated responses.
In turn, each of these challenges emphasizes the need for strong supply chain and distribution channels that go beyond sealing products. Work with remanufactured electronics requires a greater assessment of the development process than seen with the hydraulic steering aftermarket.