An intelligent compressor for electric vehicles


SuperCool has collaborated with Griffith University to develop a truly innovative semi-hermetically sealed electric swash plate compressor. Billy Friend caught up with managing director Mark Mitchell to discover how the company’s sometimes unconventional engineering leads to exceptional performance. 

SuperCool’s early history dates back to Australia’s motor vehicle manufacturing era, where cars didn’t have air-conditioning fitted as standard and all the components were made and fabricated independently.

40 years ago, SuperCool’s workshop in the Gold Coast gained a reputation as a go-to destination for car air conditioning systems for different vehicles, particularly for European vehicles like Porcshe and Mercedes. This success sprouted into five workshops in the Brisbane and Gold Coast area, and eventually expansion into transport refrigeration, compressor manufacturing and the importation of parts. Mark Mitchell, SuperCool managing director, said despite more diversity in products and capabilities, the business has always stayed in its lane, playing to its strengths in mobile transport refrigeration and air conditioning.

Eventually, the Japanese Unicla brand of systems and components became synonymous with the SuperCool name, culminating in the eventual purchase of Unicla by the Australian company in partnership with Peter Yee and his Hong Kong based IAEL Engineering Group in 2005.

As a follow-on effect, SuperCool established joint-venture partnerships with the Burgaflex and Euroscan brands in Asia-Pacific, and built one of the largest, most advanced HVACR testing centres in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Peter and I relocated the factory from Japan to China,” he said. “Our Australian business maintained really strong activity in terms of engineering, research and development while also running the sales and marketing department. A lot of the sub-components are assembled in Australia.”

A master at work – SuperCool’s ingenuity enables consistent progress.

To support continued innovation, Mitchell falls back on the principles of listening, curiosity and persistence.

“When developing products with a heavy amount of engineering around them, persistence is key. It’s so easy to give up half-way through with so much going against you, so people get disheartened and then someone else takes the idea and is taken offshore,” he said.

Striking up a balance between what you feasibly can and can’t make onshore is a dilemma all manufacturers face. While we have pockets of manufacturing excellence and exemplars across the nation, most of our manufacturers are micro-businesses focusing primarily on production. This transformation was partly brought upon by the collapse of Australia’s car manufacturing industry, where local manufacturers had opportunities to export and expand internationally as part of a global network. With the reality of not being able to make everything domestically, Mitchell explained how Australia can still increase its sovereign manufacturing capability by striking a balance between imports and local production.

“We’ve kept as much in Australia as we can,” he said. “You have to keep all of the sensitive bits here, but we do everything which isn’t feasible – like forging aluminium components in an Aluminium Smelter – in China because it can be done for 80 per cent less. I think it’s important to recognise your strengths and weaknesses in manufacturing in Australia so that there’s some long-term view to your processes. We pride ourselves on working really hard over the years to get that balance right.”

Mobile air-conditioning pioneer, Tetsuo Nobata honours SuperCool with a visit in 1991.

The eDrive

SuperCool’s international hub of the business, Unicla, started making compressors for vehicles in the 1960s. Understanding the extreme operating conditions in transport applications, the solution required advanced engineering for the time, which culminated in the company’s revolutionary swashplate technology.

 Unicla invented the 10-cylinder swashplate compressors in 1974 to bring to the Australian market. Compared to the standard five- or six-cylinder platforms, Unicla’s 10-cylinder is very well suited to electric vehicles. With this knowledge at hand, the company set out five years ago to make changes to its existing design to develop an electric compressor.

Current mobile air-conditioning and refrigeration compressors designed for combustion engine vehicles and belt drive systems don’t meet the technical requirements for electric vehicles and equipment. The production of electric vehicles and equipment is advancing globally, but the development of suitable mobile air-conditioning solutions for commercial transport and heavy vehicles has lagged.

To overcome this challenge, SuperCool saw an opportunity to create a smart electric compressor under the Unicla brand that will meet the technical requirements for future electric vehicles in this sector.

“We always knew this advantage, and theorised that if we changed the crank case and made some modifications we could increase the isentropic efficiency of the compressor for it to sit and be installed in a stationary environment in an electric vehicle, rather than being mounted on a diesel or petrol engine with a big fan cooling it all the time,” Mitchell said.

The big players like Bosch, Denso or Valeo dominate market share in the passenger car world, which is why Unicla focuses on compressors for big, heavy machinery.

“There’s a lot of good electric compressors out there, but ours has a few added features which the current generation of electric compressors don’t have. The current ones are lightweight, economically made and rely on very high-speed operation, without a long service life. Our compressor is the opposite – it’s quite robust and guarantees 15,000 hours of service duty.”

With heavy machinery and transport applications, many technicians are called out late at night. Quick and easy to diagnose and troubleshoot a system run on the eDrive, the technology was initially dubbed the ‘midnight technician project.’

Fast diagnosis is made possible by the interface connected with eDrive called eConnect, which has built in communication protocols, so system integrators and technicians can choose the preferred method for compressor control, real time communication and access to live and historical data. CAN bus, Ethernet, Bluetooth, USB and analogue/digital data are supported by every eDrive compressor, allowing the technician to access data through a laptop, tablet, or smartphone on-site. The interface is designed for technicians and shows graphical data sets for all key parameters, allowing fast data interpretation, or diagnostic assessment of comprehensive historical data sets.

“The eConnect takes much of the guess work out of the equation,” Mitchell added. “Data generated from these systems will provide valuable information for quality control, maintenance and development, leading to a shorter product improvement cycle and providing service provision to end-users.”

eConnect’s customisable interface monitors individual and combined data plots, historical event logs, suction pressure, discharge pressure, vapour temperature, compressor supply voltage, switch temperature, motor temperature and torque, motor fan speed and power, thermostat demand, safety limit range, fault control and other factors.

Shingo Kawabata adds the final touch to the compressor.

Leveraging expertise from Australian universities

According to Mitchell, SuperCool wouldn’t have been able to achieve what it has without the funding from IMCRC and collaboration with the Griffith University’s mechanical engineering department.

“Prior to the commencement of the research project, I didn’t realise how vital science would be to achieving a research outcome,” he noted. “Our compressor product is a complex, high-energy device, and it was the science that delivered the solution for our project in the end. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve these outcomes without the university and IMCRC.”

Coupling an electric motor to a refrigeration compressor brings a whole new world of thermal influences, according to Mitchell.

“You need to accurately know what the heat losses are across the motor and what power is required by the motor to drive the compressor at certain conditions so that it cools the cabin of the vehicle adequately,” he said. “The university helped us greatly, particularly with those thermal calculations. We did two years of different design ideas virtually before we even drilled into a piece of aluminium to make something. We ourselves didn’t have the software or the total skills to execute that.”

IMCRC’s funding allowed SuperCool to hire a highly skilled electronics engineer, who designed all the electronics and participated enormously to the overall design. Another software engineer was hire to write all the firmware. In Germany earlier this month, Mitchell recounted several German engineers being blown away by the workmanship of the electronics and the dashboard.

Further to this, the CRC’s Future Map program was used as SuperCool’s project milestone management system as a means of measuring its progress through the project.

“The milestones and meetings set by IMCRC were very helpful. They held us to account, and we needed that diligent discipline to help us work effectively to achieve our goals. Their processes, reporting systems and paperwork are all very straightforward,” he said.

“As a result of this project, we’ve created five new jobs in Australia and moved from a belt to an electric driven product. We’re now an electric vehicle device manufacturer and a firmware company.”

SuperCool has been able to forge on with its capability because of the research and development tax incentives from the federal government. Undoubtedly, all of us in the manufacturing sphere will keep a close eye on this year’s budget announcement.

“That policy embraces the whole idea of Aussie ingenuity,” Mitchell explained. “All of the design, research can be done here in Australia due to these tax incentives. SuperCool files all its patents here and globally, but you can’t be so foolish to think you should make everything here.”

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