What have you planned for the festive season?
What’s the first thing you think of when considering gearboxes? Have you parked in gear? Does the manual action satisfy your taste? Is that a dog-leg set up? Why won’t the automatic change when I want it to? Where’s my Lego set? That latter, more pertinent point being what led to Renault seeking out a new way of changing gears. Settle in, pop it into D and grab your Lego Technic manual.
Christmas 2010 and we find Renault’s Nicolas Fremau, Powertrains and Hybrid expert, ordering boxes of Denmark’s most prodigious export. Not for his son, either. Fremau hit on the idea that the plastic cogs along with connecting rods could form the potential of a real world use gearbox for use in the coming hybrid/ electrification vehicles. The holiday period allowed him to indulge that buzzing feeling that engineers suffer from.
“After twenty or so hours over several days fiddling around – and plenty of disbelieving glances from my son – I had made it. A Lego gearbox for the modern form of motoring. Now all I had to do was make it for real!”
Shunning the back of envelopes and sophisticated programming for gluing, drilling and cursing, Fremau persisted over the winter break to assimilate hybrid engine and gearbox conditions, knowing full well he would require input from other Renault engineers; step forward controls specialist Ahmed Ketfi-Cherif, electric engine specialist Sid Ali Randi along with gearbox design specialist Antoine Vignon who not only added vital input but also the weight required by Top Brass to change the light from red to green.
Fremau offered his surprised but intrigued colleagues detailed explanations, and model analysis. Testing the Lego build, including carefully constructing their business case that management would then evaluate over several days, this formidable foursome came to the agreement that it would work.
Dropping a cog back, Fremau and his teams determination to produce such a transmission stemmed from management’s ideas of a smoother, more placid feel for electrically powered vehicles. Using just three gears in a dog clutch arrangement; that is using interference, not friction to engage matters. Those three gears would be set up for standard driving situations; City, Road and Motorway.
Two top brass the engineers needed to convince were Rémi Bastien and Gérard Detourbet (of Dacia and cost cutting fame) who, as M0 Director (entry level car range) would halt meetings with his, “Stop adding components and costs, think about removing, replacing or simplifying instead!” Fremau realised the difficulty in circumventing this brace’s unwillingness to change gear, as it were.
Armed with his Lego model and operating principles, Fremau and his team waited until the very end of a project meeting before delivering the goods. Fremau’s stars were in alignment; the idea, which turned out to be Renault’s cheapest prototype component in its long history was given the green light. Detourbet, clearly elated, exclaimed; “If you can make this out of Lego, it just has to work!”
Thus began a fourteen month project, requiring a dedicated team along with many changes to what had become known as the LocoDiscoBox, subsequently rather corporately re-named E-Tech. Fremau’s revised Lego parts now required manufacturing in scaleable form; electric would be the vehicles main source of drive with the ICE power seamlessly entering the fray at higher speeds.
Promoted to the M1 category, that is the ultra competitive, versatile compact class, the Mégane was chosen for calibration and testing purposes. Changes to the LDB were soon required. With Alliance partner Nissan providing the HSG Powertrain (High-voltage Starter Generator), there to regulate battery charge alongside smoothing out those gear changes, the engineers realised a fourth gear would be favourable for motorway speeds.
This fourth gear would disengage the electric motor, reducing drag and consumption. Add in a smaller electric motor for low speed manoeuvres equated to smaller, lighter components; manna from heaven for engineers. Some Formula One know how also wormed its way into the game utilising KERS ideas to assist with regenerative braking alongside smoothing out the entire process of electrical motion. The Eolab from 2014 allowing glimpses toward an electrified future.
Fremau’s Christmas a decade ago may have been far from conventional but the results are there for all to see. “Even with the green light, we had lots of it’ll never work comments and let’s face it, this was a crazy idea. With plenty of self-motivation and good backing, over time the whole company began to take this on board seriously to the point that me and my team are most proud of our achievements.”
Today, the E-Tech is available in the Captur plug-in Hybrid, the all new Clio and Mégane Sport Tourer and continues to move forward a-pace. Though one can’t help wishing for the original name to have been kept, but we close today with a piece of advice. Should your child (of whatever age, though Technic seems to be 16+) show an aptitude for meddling with Lego, encourage and allow exploration but best to wear stout foot coverings when creating such innovations – hospital staff prefer quieter Christmas’s.