Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Wind Tunnel Available In 2010

Saw this piece this week and thought I would share:
Some time in July, the temperature in part of Oshawa, Ont., will fall to -30 Celsius in the middle of a howling blizzard. A half a day later, the forecast could call for a high of 60 degrees, with 95 per cent humidity.

Luckily, these pockets of climate confusion will be confined to a relatively small indoor space: the new climatic wind tunnel at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“We control Mother Nature,” jokes Matt Milovick, assistant vice-president of finance and operations at the university, known as UOIT.

The wind tunnel is the centrepiece of the new Automotive Centre of Excellence, or ACE, which in turn is one of the fruits of an agreement the federal and Ontario governments made with General Motors of Canada Ltd. in the middle of the decade, when the auto maker invested more than $2-billion in its Canadian operations.

In return for $435-million in funding for GM's Beacon project, the two governments won a promise for major contributions to research and development in Ontario, including the centre.

Those commitments are now coming into sharper focus as the auto industry seeks to improve productivity and return to the black – and as governments look for ways to revive auto employment after the Detroit Three reduced their manufacturing footprints in Canada.

It's more than just a wind tunnel, John Komar, a senior GM engineer who is resident manager of the ACE, says as he leads visitors on a tour of the site, which is still under construction. The centre is linked to laboratories, work space and room for UOIT engineering faculty and GM engineers to work on collaborative research.

“This is a place where engineers can actually get their hands dirty,” Mr. Komar says.

As he points out the wind tunnel's features, including its massive three-megawatt fan, workers are powering up the facility and preparing to install panels six inches thick on the walls to make sure the climate is consistent throughout the testing area.

The most imposing and leading-edge element of the centre is the five-storey climatic wind tunnel, which can generate a top wind speed of 240 kilometres an hour and a low of -40 degrees and is scheduled to be operating by the middle of 2010.

The wind tunnel is to be used mainly by automotive companies. GM Canada's head office and Canadian regional engineering centre are a few kilometres away from the university, which is located in the north end of Oshawa. (GM has agreed to purchase the equivalent of 1,840 hours of testing during the first two years of operation.)

But the tunnel can also accommodate buses, locomotives, airplane components, ski teams seeking wind testing and auto parts makers doing research and development on how their components will perform in all kinds of wind and weather.

“You can be a small partner, a tier one or tier two [supplier], a small engineering research company, a start-up company, and you may only need a couple of hours a year or you might need eight hours or some research space,” Mr. Komar says. “Now you have that availability.”

There are wind tunnels at several universities in Canada and the National Research Council in Ottawa.

But the UOIT facility has unique features, Mr. Komar says, including environmental chambers, shaker tables and a “multi-axis simulation table” that allows testing to see how a vehicle shakes, rattles and rolls on the road.

A shaker table might rattle a car for two weeks non-stop to see how well it holds up. In the environmental chamber, engineers might soak a vehicle in a simulated rain storm for eight hours, reduce the temperature to -40, then test it for cold-weather starts.

What will make the centre truly stand out, however, is if UOIT can raise an additional $24-million in financing on top of the $99-million already contributed by the two governments, GM and other partners to add a rolling road to the wind tunnel.

That would give ACE the ability to measure wind and climate while a vehicle is in simulated motion, not just resting on the dynamometer, a giant plate on which a vehicle sits while being tested. It would be the only wind tunnel in the world to have such capabilities.