Interview: Gwenne Henricks, president of Perkins

By Chris Sleight31 May 2012

Gwenne henricks, president of Perkins

Gwenne henricks, president of Perkins

Laws on exhaust emissions, the drive for more fuel efficiency and even regulations on noise mean engine manufacturers have had their work cut out over the last 15 years or so, meeting these legal requirements with more and more technology.

The most stringent requirements in Europe, Japan and North America mean diesel engines incorporate a huge range of systems, from electronic engine management, to high pressure injection, exhaust gas recirculation and various forms of exhaust gas after treatment. It is a far cry from the far simpler, un-regulated engines that were on the market jas recently as the 1990s.
As president of diesel engine manufacturer Perkins, and a vice president of its parent company Caterpillar, with responsibility for industrial power systems and growth markets, Gwenne Henricks is not just focussed on the demands of the near future, but also the longer term picture.

In one sense the end is in sight, with the final stages of the current round of legislation - Tier 4 Final in the US and Stage IV in Europe - coming into force in 2014. These will see pollution levels reduced to around the ambient levels seen in many cities. In some cases, manufacturers say their engines will actually make air cleaner!

But will that really be the end of it? iC asked Ms Henricks where engine emission regulations were going in the long term after the implementation of Tier 4.

"I think there will be something around CO2 reduction, which means essentially burn less fuel or burn fuel that has lower CO2 properties in the emissions," she said. "If it's burn less fuel, there'll be efficiency improvements that we'll want to make. The big key there is that we will continue to develop more and more efficient engines. You certainly see the trend of increasing power density - you'd like to get more efficiency out of a smaller package and burn less fuel to get the job done.

"As an engine manufacturer, we'd like to do that, but I think there's a bigger prize in matching the engine well to the drive train and hydraulics, and then there are hybrids and energy storage of one form or another.

"Then there's a prize at total machine level and then again at optimising the machines and the job site. So it's about efficiency - burning less fuel, but then it's about collaboration between engine manufacturers and machine manufacturers, right through to the customers."

If law-makers were to target CO2 emissions there are two ways they could do it. One would be to put higher taxes on fuel, so manufacturers could get a commercial advantage by making machines that were more fuel efficient. A different approach would be to regulate machines or engines in the same way the current emission laws do, and give manufacturers a target they must achieve to be able to market their products.

"My best guess is that we'll see both," said Ms Henricks. "It will depend on the different social and political considerations in different regions of the world. It would be nice to get a harmonised approach, but I wouldn't bet on it.

"Targeting engine manufacturers, is probably not going to
get the optimum results, because there are bigger prizes in efficiency to be won by helping the customer to be more efficient. So taxing, or legislating just at the engine level is not going to do that."

Here to stay

As you would expect the president of a major engine manufacturer like Perkins to say, Ms Henricks believes the diesel is here to stay. But it is an argument she backs with by pointing to the reasons why diesel engines are ubiquitous in the construction equipment sector.

"For as far ahead as I can see, the diesel engine is going to play an important role in powering construction equipment. It is still the most power-dense, efficient method of providing the energy we need. The fuel is portable - more portable than some of the alternatives - and it is still a very efficient way of creating the power that's needed.

"For stationary kinds of applications, there's something to be said for electrical solutions, but less so if you're moving around.

Batteries will lend themselves to this industry, but it's a challenge. As we look toward applying it to construction equipment and equipment that requires significant power for an extended period, it's a technology that's got a way to go. That's why I come back to saying I foresee diesel or gas engines, in combination with other technologies, having a role for a long time to come," she said.

And what might those other technologies be? The last few years have seen the launch of a handful of hybrids in the industry and diesel electric technology - using the diesel engine as an on-board generator to drive electric motors - has been around for decades. But the point Ms Henricks makes is that it won't be a one-size-fits-all solution.

"Depending on how the equipment is used, you're going to see different systems. The best solution for an excavator is going to be different for a wheeled loader or a tracked tractor. There's not going to be one answer, it's going to come down to the efficiency of the whole system and what customers want to do with it."

The problem with diesel, and perhaps a bigger driving factor in improving efficiency than the desire to reduce CO2 emissions, is of course the rising price of oil. It is no surprise then that a big focus for Perkins' research & development activities is alternative fuels - a trend Ms Henricks sees continuing.

"Bio fuels and, other forms of natural gas are growing in importance and will grow in importance. I'm a big fan of energy from waste, and it could be biological waste producing bio fuels. That will not meet all the needs that will exist, but it is the right thing to do. It can have a virtuous circle, and it is a socially responsible thing to do.

"The issue is that you get very variable, non-homogeneous fuels coming in, but there is work going on there. I think we will end up with engineered fuels from waste products," she said.

Another more current area of interest is in the use of natural gas as a fuel for construction equipment, particularly following the discovery of large deposits of shale gas in North America, northern Europe and South America from the late 1990s onwards.

"Even today, many of our customers are asking for solutions that take advantage of natural gas. There are already a lot of products in the marketplace today. For us, its' a question of what are the right business cases for our products," confirmed Ms Henricks.

Better engines

The widespread use of alternative fuels and new technologies like hybrids may be some years away, and as Ms Henricks believes, the diesel engine is here to stay anyway. But just because the current round of emissions legislation is coming to an end, it doesn't mean development in the industry will come to a standstill.
"I think over time we'll mature across the industry and find smarter ways of getting the emissions down. Over time we will make discoveries and find ways of doing the job better," concluded Ms Henricks.

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