Eric Thor Gillund ‘90
Fifty years is a long time to wait for anything. Just ask a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. In Ford’s case, this was the time from their landmark 1-2-3 finish in the 24-hours of Le Mans with their GT40s to their successful return to racing in France last year with the new Ford GT. Thankfully, my part of that journey was not as long but it is definitely one of the most rewarding of my engineering career.
The co-operative education program at the University of Waterloo afforded me many different opportunities to broaden and apply the Mechanical Engineering schooling that I chose to pursue after leaving Brentwood. My fourth co-op placement was with Multimatic, a small, privately-held Canadian auto parts supplier just north of Toronto, specializing in door hinges and checks. I always had a passion for cars and this was a chance to get my foot in the door of that industry. Fortunately, I got to realize my passion, returning for two more work terms and before landing a full-time position after graduation. It’s a role I love, where I use my technical training constantly and where problem-solving tasks give me immediate feedback.
In over twenty years with the company, my experience with computer-aided engineering (CAE) has grown from simple linear finite element models of door hinge assemblies through to simulations with composite materials, massive stamping dies, full vehicle crashes, and occupant restraint systems. This paralleled the company’s forays into new product lines and technologies, including instrument panels, suspension links, dampers, composite race car chassis, and low volume niche vehicles. Initially part of a group of five, I now run a team of more than 25 simulation engineers. The software tools I use every day make our parts more effective and efficient which is critical since we compete with suppliers around the world for business. Finding grams of weight savings or shaving milliseconds off a lap time are the solutions our customers demand.
So how did we as a Canadian parts supplier with humble beginnings go on to become the manufacturer of the Liquid Blue car that stole the show at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit? By converging three key elements: successful racing experience, carbon fibre manufacturing capability, and an engineering team with a reputation for delivering timely, innovative solutions. My role slotted into that third category. The expectations were clear – deliver a car that can win at Le Mans as well as a road-legal version for world markets in about two years. Oh, and keep it a complete secret, even from your loved ones . . . for over a year!
We assembled the show car in an isolated bay in our Technical Centre in Markham (just north of Toronto) to keep that secret intact. Access was extremely limited during the first build phase, and to my chagrin, my security pass did not unlock those doors. That quickly changed as more of us became heavily involved. The engineering team worked to refine the designs of components, determine optimal composite layups, evaluate part assembly and build processes, develop plans, and test parts. From door hinges to active aerodynamic devices, this car demanded unique and innovative content. Content that my team was tasked to develop.
One of the most intriguing challenges literally surrounds the occupants. Steel tubing in the roof might seem counterintuitive for a high-performance lightweight vehicle because the vehicle dynamics engineers simulating race laps want to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible. The elegance of our solution comes from commonality between the race and road car versions. By adding in a select number of tubes into the existing structure, it becomes an integrated race-approved roll cage. No need to make the upper cabin larger to accommodate a separate roll cage, thus maintaining low frontal area, and minimizing the roof mass increase for the race car variant. The unique door structure and swing angle required a cast aluminum door hinge solution, quite unlike the products Multimatic has produced for decades for more conventional vehicles.
One of my favorite details of the car are the cylindrical rear tail lights which are also vents for engine bay air. Aerodynamics drove much of the exterior shape, taking input from wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics.
Hydraulic actuators change the ride height of the vehicle for on-track modes and also change the spring rate (stiffness) of the suspension for each wheel. A variety of concepts were explored for this system. During one brainstorming meeting, I proposed a concept for the actuator and it became design direction, which was rewarding. But 24 hours later a more efficient concept won over the chief engineer. Disappointing, but it’s all about finding the best solution.
A fleet of prototype vehicles followed for validation testing. Applying the knowledge and experience I had gained on global crash and occupant safety regulations from other projects, I outlined the crash program and attended nearly half the crash tests. More than 30 of them were conducted to assess the impact modes required for various markets around the world. Each test took hours of preparation and working through safety checklists. In one test, I stood by in the viewing area, the lights came up, the countdown was announced, and then the lab went dark. Braced for a completely different event, I was startled. A minor electrical issue in a backup system shut the whole system down. The lab technicians understandably take great care with all the elements of these tests. Every test began with moments of nervous tension as the test track cable whined up to speed, followed by the BANG! of impact. These tests were loud. Within 100 milliseconds, the cracking of carbon fibre bodywork, crushing of aluminum, explosion of airbags, and squealing of tires on concrete was over. Then we pored over the car to see that everything behaved as expected. Reviewed high-speed video to confirm the timing of events and see how parts interact. Checked dummy injury measures against targets to ensure occupant safety. Each test was a mile marker on the path to production. A few tests scheduled in the afternoon ran well after midnight leaving an odd mix of adrenaline and caffeine when I needed to sleep. The cars headed back to the garage for mechanics to rebuild ahead of their next test. Each prototype was far too valuable to be used only once!
The first race cars were produced alongside the early prototype road cars. Secretive testing at tracks, like Calabogie near Ottawa, followed to work out the kinks and give drivers time to get familiar with the car. They practiced on simulators at Multimatic and Ford using our vehicle dynamics models to give feedback on setup and tuning. By the summer of 2016, the cars were ready for the punishment of a 24-hour race. The results were incredible - the GTs split the podium with their historic rivals at Ferrari, placing first and third in their inaugural return to Le Mans. An amazing accomplishment and one that I and so many of my colleagues were thrilled to be involved in.
Once the last of the champagne was poured, the production launch for the road car was the next major hurdle. A brand new manufacturing facility was built around the corner from the office. Acres of parts racks, paint booths, bonding, and assembly stations were installed. Every time I walked over to the plant, there were new faces added to the growing factory team, new equipment placed, and more parts shipped in. The first few vehicles crept slowly day by day around the assembly stations. Starting with the bare occupant cell, mating to the engine and rear structure, installing suspension, wiring harnesses, interior, and bodywork. This is not the robotized assembly of typical high volume manufacturing. It is an extremely manual process, from bonding the panels together to create the occupant cell to the laborious painting and polishing of the many layers of color and clearcoat needed to achieve the stunning finish on each body panel – Liquid Red is my current favorite. Now, seeing a room full of these marvels is the norm, with a car leaving the assembly line each day. For its final operational checks, each car stops at an alignment rig, engine dyno, and water spray booth – basically an indoor monsoon – and light booth for cosmetic review. It’s now ready to delight an excited new owner lucky enough to be selected through Ford’s application program. That’s right, you actually had to be chosen to get the opportunity to buy one!
For me, the opportunity to be involved in the development of this car has been a career highlight and an engineering dream come true. I’ve worked on hundreds of different parts for a wide variety of vehicles, but this is Multimatic’s first complete production vehicle, and it was fantastic to see it from start to finish. But since the crash test cars don’t run (no actual fuel on board, part of those safety checklists!) I’d been in many cars but not actually driven one. Thanks to a conveniently timed visit to the Dearborn facility handling the fleet of production marketing cars, I got my chance! As tempting as it was, I broke no land speed records. I leave that to the professionals headed to the race tracks again for another chance at the podium.