Modular matrix systems
Mass-produced motor car manufacturers first adopted the stressed skin unibody, or monocoque design system, pioneered by the Opel Olympia and Citroën Traction Avant way back in the 1930s.
The basic design and production methods of making a strong one-piece body from pressed and welded steel sheet have since substantially evolved, but essentially remained little changed.
Strong components needed to support engines, suspensions and transmissions came later in the form of detachable sub-frames, often bolted to the body unit, and are now commonly used to improve noise isolation. Computerisation of body design and robotised manufacture only served to strengthen the unitary form of body design and construction.
But the high investment in production facilities resulted in progressive adoption of modules common to a number of models, rather than having completely individual designs for each and every component of any model. It enabled car manufacturers to rationalise design and production such that whole ranges of cars from superminis to large executive models could be based on just three or four adaptable “platforms” that could be stretched in their wheelbase, within some limits.
The latest development in the evolution of unitary construction sees an even more flexible modular system pioneered in Volkswagen’s MQB, or Modular Transverse Matrix. It will form the basis of all platform construction for the Volkswagen Group’s family of front-wheel-drive transverse engine cars, running in parallel with a similar strategy for larger longitudinal engine models, and the essential principles will undoubtedly be adopted with little delay by all major European manufacturers.
Possibly the USA will be slow to follow though, in the same way that it adhered to separate the chassis and body construction long after Europe had virtually abandoned the ladder chassis system.
MQB is essentially a system for introducing rationality across several platforms that share a common engine orientation, regardless of model, or vehicle size. It uses a core “matrix” of common components across a wide variety of platforms, with a common engine-mounting core for all drive trains – petrol, diesel, hybrid, or electric.
The system obviously offers huge cost savings, by way of reduced component numbers and reduced design costs. As well as reducing weight, the modular matrix concept allows diverse models from the company’s various brands to be easily manufactured at the same plant, and on the same production lines, offering further savings on manufacturing costs.
A major feature is the uniform position of all power units and transmissions such that, by fitting all engines into effectively the same place relative to the main platform, it can reduce engineering and production costs. It thus simplifies methods that had become excessively complex, standardises many techniques and systems, and should reduce production time and costs by up to 20 per cent, with commonality of parts extending from components of the body platform to engines, suspensions, transmissions, electrical systems, and more.
Within the Volkswagen Group, the strategy has kicked off with the family comprising of the new Golf Mk VII, latest Audi A3, SEAT Leon and the recently revealed Skoda Octavia, whilst the MLB system will soon feature in an all-new Audi A4 and Volkswagen Passat.