Following their success at Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo 2016 we spoke to Dr Walter Lucking, CEO of Pi Innovo LLC in our latest Exhibitor Spotlight. We took this opportunity to discuss the key trends emerging in the EV industry, new product launches and 2017 show.
Dr Walter Lucking became CEO of Pi Innovo in 2011. Prior to this appointment he held a number of engineering and managerial roles within Pi after joining the team in 1999. He has 20+ years of international experience in the development of custom electronics and real-time embedded controls for safety-critical systems in the automotive and transportation sectors. He is a passionate, highly motivated engineering leader, dedicated to driving Pi’s growth as a world-class custom electronics and engineering organization. He has a Controls PhD in applied artificial intelligence as well as a BSc and Master’s in Electrical & Electronic Engineering.
Which customer or market demands were the biggest drivers of your company’s growth during the past three years?
The overall trend toward vehicle electrification – and specifically the new California-based vehicle OEMs offering HEVs and EVs – has been very good for Pi Innovo. These companies need cost-optimized custom VCUs and HCUs (vehicle control units and hybrid control units) delivered under aggressive development timeframes. Pi Innovo has been able to leverage our family of OpenECU controllers to support the initial controls developments for prototype vehicles while we develop the production controller. By utilizing OpenECU, the reliability and robustness of the prototypes is excellent, avoiding the typical issues experienced with prototype electronics systems. Additionally, by using the OpenECU platform, all software developed in the prototype phase can continue to be refined all the way through to production and then seamlessly ported onto the final production module, eliminating redundant effort and reducing the overall development time and thereby cost.
In addition to HCUs and VCUs, we have been asked to develop other safety-critical modules. We use ISO26262 ASIL-D level processes when required by our customers. The combination of our ability to accelerate the development process and our team of experienced hardware and software engineers is delivering unparalleled value for our customers needing custom electronics modules.
Our recently announced partnership with UQM is allowing Pi Innovo to leverage the OpenECU family to supply the transmission controller for its PowerPhase DT system targeted for use on electric buses. In this case, UQM is using Pi Innovo to supply the production transmission controls software as well as the ECU. One of the benefits of using the Pi Innovo controller is the fact that UQM will be able to tailor the controls to individual applications. Typically, when a customer receives an ECU, it’s a black box that requires going back to the supplier for any changes or modifications. However, by using OpenECU, UQM has the option to modify the controls itself or work with Pi Innovo to do so. This allows UQM to go in very quickly and respond to its customers’ needs and give them exactly what they want with respect to transmission controls for their applications.
Do you anticipate that those demands will continue to be your biggest growth drivers for the next three years, or are you anticipating new trends?
I believe the trend to vehicle electrification will continue to play a huge role in our growth. This, combined with the need to reduce development times, costs and an increasing emphasis on functional safety (ISO 26262), plays right to Pi Innovo’s strengths.
What are your areas of R&D focus, and what timeline do you anticipate for bringing your next new products to market? Can you tell us anything about those products?
We are planning to introduce our next key member of the OpenECU product family some time mid-2017. It is being targeted at electric/hybrid vehicle supervisory control and other ASIL safety-critical applications and is being designed to be very cost-effective for low- to medium-volume applications. For customers interested in fast time to market and cost-effective hardware in a high-reliability environment, we think this unit will be very popular. Because it uses the OpenECU platform it will be very simple to change features and functionality to suit specific applications.
We are working with UQM to offer the supervisory controller along with all the controls software for the electric bus applications. In mid-2017, UQM will be able to offer a full turnkey system solution to its bus customers using Pi Innovo ECUs and controls.
We have also been working in collaboration with GaN Systems to explore production applications of its gallium nitride semiconductor technology. The initial focus was based around a motor controller design intended to demonstrate the benefits of GaN semiconductors in applications with a wide range of input voltages from 12V to 300V. The controller design provided a functional starting point for the development of 48V and above, high-speed motor-driven vehicle systems and is targeted at companies working on the electrification of auxiliary vehicle systems.
What new trends do you anticipate and what market demands do you see evolving/changing over the next five years?
I don’t know if the trends we are seeing are really new. Most of our customers want to reduce development times without sacrificing quality or reliability. They also are looking for the flexibility to make changes to adapt to market demands. I don’t see the need to reduce development times and improve development flexibility while delivering excellent quality changing any time soon.
With the addition of new niche OEMs in the market, cost and time to market are critical. Typically, these OEMs are also trying to internalize development of strategic IP to differentiate themselves and build their brands. Having access to a development system such as OpenECU is a significant benefit. OpenECU is not only highly flexible but also provides an easy-to-use environment to directly develop IP in-house without the need to share this knowledge with a supplier. We only continue to see the need for this type of flexibility and capability accelerating.
What is your company’s approach to strategic partnerships or joint ventures, and what kinds of partnerships are you most open to exploring?
As previously mentioned, we recently entered into a partnership with UQM to pursue the electric bus market, primarily targeting huge growth in China. UQM values Pi Innovo’s ECUs and strong controls engineering and we get to leverage UQM’s growing presence in China. It should be a win-win.
Pi Innovo sees strategic partnerships as a key to growth, especially where we work in collaboration with other technology providers to deliver innovative system solutions as well as providing subsystems.
What products will you be featuring at the show this year and what response are you expecting?
We expect to have launched our new OpenECU targeting electric/hybrid vehicle supervisory control applications. This should be very popular for prototyping and low- to intermediate-volume applications. We will also be highlighting our recently introduced M110 OpenECU. Given the complexity of many of the new electrified vehicle systems, we have had multiple requests for a versatile gateway module. The M110 has four CAN, two LIN, three SENT.receive and four SENT.transmit channels and can be customized to serve a variety of gateway-type applications.
Why are you exhibiting and what connections do you hope to make there?
We have found EV Expo to be a good show for Pi Innovo. Although we have been around in one form or another for 25 years, the Pi Innovo name has only been around for five years and many customers still do not know who we are. Many customers do not know about the depth of our experience in custom ECU design. The show gives us an opportunity to show off our designs for sensorless BLDC motor controllers, vehicle supervisory, driveline and engine controllers while highlighting our strong systems and controls engineering expertise.