Reinventing the wheels

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Gripping the wheel of a Hummer, snow-covered trees zip by and fade into the swirl of dirt lingering in my side mirror. The mountain road is rough and I'm barreling down it. Jarringly bottoming out over a hill, a voice outside warns me to slow down, but it's too late. I veer over a tall hill into the unknown.

I crash and fail. Fortunately,I only dentedmy pride.

The life-like vehicle simulator inside Commercial Vehicle Group's Research and Development Center is one of many high-tech tools the company uses to refine and reinvent how vehicles are designed and built. Many people see the results of CVG's highly specialized craftsmanship - ranging from truck cabs to ATV parts - but never even realize it.

"There are very few companies like us that have worldwide operations," said Mervin Dunn, CEO and president of the New Albany-based company.

Rather than constructing entire vehicles, CVG typically makes detail-orientated bits and pieces for its clients; that could be a body for a limited-edition sports car or a military-vehicle seat to protect a solider during a blast.

A lot goes into moving a product from concept to prototype. CVG's new, 89,000-square-foot complex in New Albany houses roughly 40 engineers who collaborate with designers and specialists in-house and around the world.

"We have some tools that even the automotive companies don't have yet," said Logan Mullinix, vice president of research and development.

A range of diagnostic tools with fancy names help engineers craft more efficient products for CVG's manufacturing plants worldwide, and 3-D model printers allow prototypes to be made in hours instead of weeks. Once a product has been designed and constructed, it faces rigorous performance testing.

Resembling a black disco ball, the spherical beamforming system is a device that essentially snaps 360-degree photographs of sound. It's used to help soundproof vehicle interiors and it's the only such device in the western hemisphere.

A multi-axis simulator - a huge platform with pneumatic, spider-like legs - can be used to test the life of products as big as 30 tons by literally shaking them. Simulating real-world road stresses, the device is capable of precisely recreating the feel of any terrain the engineers record - say, your entire drive home from work

"I can completely destroy a product in a matter of hours if I want to," Mullinix said.

Recreating field tests in the laboratory saves time and money. CVG's vehicle simulator, designed to accurately resemble the cab of an 18-wheeler, allows engineers to test various vehicles, like a Hummer, without worrying about bent fenders. The controlled, artificial environment outputs detailed driver data - though my wipeout over the hill apparently wasn't very informative.

Most of CVG's focus is on cab-related products and services, but their varying clients keep them on their toes. At any point, the private design bays in the company's R&D facility may be occupied with projects for the heavy-duty truck, construction or even military industries.

CVG was contracted to help design and build the body and space frame for the Ford GT, a reinvention of the much-coveted GT40 from the 1960s. Sold in limited quantities several years ago, the Ford GT's all-aluminum body reinforced with carbon fiber remains a jaw-dropping sight - understandably, the 550-horsepower sports car retailed for more than $140,000.

"If [clients] need someone who can handle high-specialization, low-volume, that's us," said Dunn, who's also the owner of a screeching-red Ford GT.

Commercial Vehicle Group