Subaru aims for small engine innovation and reliability
Editor’s note: Brad Murphy, chief operating officer of Subaru Industrial Power Products, Lake Zurich, Ill., initially wanted to be an architect and spent three years in engineering school before switching to business and graduating from Arizona State University in Phoenix. He initially worked in sales in a different industry before joining a Honda engine distributor in 1984. “All I knew about small engines is that one ran my lawn mower,” Murphy says. As he learned on the job, he sold engines and other products before joining a Robin engines distributor in Southern California. He then joined Robin America in 1993 in outside sales, covering the West, and moved up the ladder until becoming Subaru’s chief operating officer last year. Whether it is his experience with engines or engineering background, he also says he is an avid do-it-yourselfer. “I like to do projects and I’m at the hardware stores all the time. They know me by my first name,” Murphy says. Murphy recently spoke with Rental Management about the company’s key concerns and strategy for the future. An edited version of that conversation follows.
RM: When it comes to engine manufacturing, what are the key concerns today?
Brad Murphy: We make small, general purpose gasoline engines under 1 liter. Those that make diesel engines have their issues with emissions and we have ours. In 2011, we had to meet evaporative emissions rules for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but we already were doing it to meet California Air Resources Board (CARB) rules. In January, we had to do it for twin-cylinder engines and we already had a solution. Our engines, exhaust-wise, easily met the requirements. We didn’t have to make anything special for California and the EPA. For us, it was paperwork. The real problem is for small original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that use their own fuel tank. We warned everybody we knew. Today, there are people who don’t know that starting Jan. 1, 2012, they are supposed to be meeting these requirements and they risk trouble. We have to work with customers on engines that don’t have a tank. They have to do an evaporative system and you buy components certified to meet the standards, but you also have to file paperwork. It could take a few months for them to respond to you or you are in noncompliance and you risk fines.
RM: Some rental stores have reported engine problems related to using gas with ethanol and some have talked about problems with gas caps. What are you doing to help solve those problems?
Murphy: We have had a carbon canister gas cap for at least three years. We put in a rollover valve. If the carbon gets wet because you tip the machine for transportation or whatever reason, then it doesn’t vent. The engine will run for about an hour and then shut off. We put in a rollover valve that plugs the hole and prevents the carbon from getting wet. All single cylinder engines use this.
RM: An engine company like Subaru has two different marketplaces — OEMs and rental stores for replacement engines. What’s your sales pitch? Why should someone use a Subaru engine?
Murphy: For rental stores, when they buy equipment or repower a machine, they want a reasonable price and a reliable engine that will not suck up service parts and have downtime. Also, when they sell a machine and turn it over, they need some way to increase perceived value. Our engines now have a five-year warranty that is transferable. At one time, everyone offered a two-year warranty. Then we upped it to three and others followed, so now we are at five years. We’ve proven our engines outlast the best out there. We examined our warranty claim rate. After the first year, claims drop off, so we extended our warranty to five years. If you have a plate compactor for three years that has another company’s engine and you sell it, the warranty is done. If the plate compactor has a Subaru engine, the extra years left on the warranty go to the new owner. We aim to help add value at acquisition. Then, because of durability and reliability, there is less downtime and the engine is more economical to operate. Then on the sales phase, with the warranty, we can help them reap back as much of the original investment as they can.
RM: What types of equipment are equipped with Subaru’s gas engines?
Murphy: Almost anything you can think of, including plate compactors, generators, pumps, concrete cutting equipment, professional lawn and garden equipment and air compressors. I don’t know what applications we are not on. We figure Subaru engines are on about 30 percent of the product that was on display at The Rental Show in New Orleans this year.
RM: The recession was a difficult time for a lot of companies, but many reported improvement in 2011 and expect 2012 to be better. Is your business improving?
Murphy: Business for us has been very good. Going forward, it’s getting more competitive out there. There are three engines right now: The Honda GX, introduced in 1984, is a very good single-cylinder line; the Subaru engines with a unique overhead cam design; then what I like to call “Honda copies” without brands. With those, when you have problems, there’s nowhere to get them fixed.
RM: With the variety of engine requirements and regulations, what’s next? Where do you see engine technology going?
Murphy: There is more pressure to get engines to run cleaner. The exhaust output of a small engine per hp is multiple times more than a car. Today’s Subaru cars can get partially zero exhaust emissions. Nobody’s small engine is that clean, but that’s the goal. Ten years ago, the chain-driven overhead cam was a design used in cars and motorcycles. We moved that technology to small general purpose engines. The next phase will be fuel injection with electronic control. We were the first ones to do a small recoil start fuel injection engine. It worked, but cost too much to afford. However, we are doing that now on a 16-hp single-cylinder engine for a Kubota utility vehicle that just went into production. That’s where engine development is going. You have an engine control unit, which is a microcomputer figuring out what to do, and we will bring that down to single-cylinder engines, which will vastly improve exhaust emissions. It will measure idle speeds and measure those numbers at those spots. A carburetor works well at fixed speeds, but not across variable speeds. Fuel injection can hit those low numbers at every speed and every load.
For rammers only
One of the latest developments at Subaru Industrial Power Products, Lake Zurich, Ill., is building an engine specifically for use with rammers.
“There are a lot of needs with a rammer engine,” says Brad Murphy, Subaru’s chief operating officer. “One is balance. A rammer sits at an angle and the idea is that the tool doesn’t walk away from you. The less you have to tip it, the better. If you angle the forces, you divide force by horizontal and vertical vectors. The more you angle, the horizontal vector increases and the vertical decreases, but the vertical angle is where the energy is going into the ground.”
With a Subaru rammer engine, Murphy says the balance point is closer to the mounting face, so the manufacturer doesn’t have to tip the rammer as much. As a result, Murphy says the Subaru rammer engine is lighter than the smallest of its competitors and more powerful than the largest made by other companies.
“Diesel engines use this technology and we’re using it in a gas one. We use torsion bolts from the head down through the cylinder into the block. Torsion bolts act as structural members, not just as fasteners. That way, we reduce the amount of castings of the head, cylinder and block. We put these torsion bolts in there, tighten twice and they torque or stretch. They work together. This reduces the amount of material and we increase steel where we need to improve the strength,” Murphy says.
“A rammer puts out tremendous force and the engine is taking that, too. It has to withstand that or it will crack. A normal engine won’t hold up. Our rammer engine also has a pressure lubrication system in it. There’s an oil pump in it and an oil pressure center like on your car. There is a gear pump that pumps from bottom to the top and we cast in baffles in the block. People can lay them down and it keeps oil from going into the head,” he says.
“There also is a safety issue with rammers. If you are using it right, it hardly even moves. If you drop it, it will jump around. On ours, if it drops down, the engine shuts off because it is not picking up oil. Nobody else uses pressure lubrication on a rammer engine, but this engine has only one purpose and it is only for a rammer,” he says. — Wayne Walley