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June 2012 Baselines: ZF Transmission


Bill Senefsky
Jun 1, 2012
From Airships To Transmissions: Building A German Gear-Making Machine
Friedrichshafen, Germany, is an engineering community that was made famous in the early 1900s during the development of lighter-than-air aircraft. The most well-known entity that came from that town went on to become the global drivetrain component manufacturer ZF. But long before ZF built the manual transmissions found in every Power Stroke and Duramax pickup, the ZF Group got its start engineering and producing precision gears for Zeppelin aircraft and other airships.
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Zahnradfabrik Means Gear Factory
When ZF was originally founded, it was dubbed Zahnradfabrik, the German word for gear factory. The company was born out of a need for precision aircraft parts by a retired German general named Count Zeppelin. Zeppelin wanted to vastly improve the transmission of motorized power to his airships’ propellers, and higher-tolerance precision cogwheels were needed. Zeppelin’s engineers approached Max Maag, a Swiss engineer from Zurich, Switzerland, who had developed the technology needed in his machine tooling operations.
August 20, 1915 saw the beginnings of ZF, a private concern, begun by Count Zeppelin and Max Maag. Another well-known engineer of this period, Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen, was added to the staff due to his reputation as an automotive engineer from Daimler.
With more than 40 pieces of equipment brought in from Max Maag’s concern, ZF began producing the cog components and transmissions needed for Zeppelin’s diesel-powered airships. Zeppelin had envisioned global airship travel, but the hostilities of WWI demanded otherwise. Despite the wartime conditions, 1916 saw the young firm record 10 patents for new mechanical devices.
Obviously, at war’s end in 1918, with the Allies severely punishing the Kaiser’s regime and the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the remnants of the concern found themselves forced into the civilian automotive market. Parts and components utilized for German aviation in any form were forbidden. Qualified and educated staff was in short supply, and precision machinery and raw materials were almost impossible to obtain.
Though Soden immediately launched a ZF automotive engineering and production division, other severe limits were placed on the struggling firm. Allied military overseers imposed a manufacturing limit of 75 transmission assemblies per day. ZF managed to continue in spite of horrid inflation through a severe postwar recession. More than 19 machines were somehow added to allow for the production of the Soden pre-selector gearbox, a semi-automatic transmission designed and engineered by the CEO himself. This new gearbox featured a shift lever mounted on the dashboard. The novel device was priced beyond the means of the average motorist, and was thus dropped.
In 1925, the company launched its basic Einheitsgetriebe, a standardized gearbox that led to the sale of more than 300,000 units. Its success led to the launch of a quieter Aphon unit, which first appeared in Germany’s Auto Union Horch (which went on to become Audi) eight-cylindered sports convertible in 1929.
1930s Recession
The Great Depression in the United States affected struggling economies in Europe as well. Although Germany’s economic and industrial industries were able to bring airship service to South America, its struggling economy back in the motherland created a jobless atmosphere that allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933. His first act was to establish a massive road-building program. Motorization was also increased, and as a result, ZF entered the steering systems business with units produced under license from the American company Ross Steering (which later became part of TRW).
By 1934, ZF launched its first synchronized four-speed transmission for automobiles. Three years later, ZF employed 3,500 people, operated three manufacturing plants, and became a transmission leader in Europe.
The End of Airships
In 1937, less than a year after the launch of the largest airship to date, the Hindenburg (LZ 129) tragedy in New Jersey brought ZF’s airship development to a halt. The company immediately shifted design, engineering, and production toward transmissions for the tractor and ship markets.
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ZF also found itself embroiled in another war when German troops marched into Poland in 1939. New hostilities meant the company was again under strict government control. Transmission production for tanks and military trucks consumed manufacturing capacity until the main Friedrichshafen facilities were destroyed and eventually taken over by the French in 1945.
The French were determined to dismantle and destroy ZF and the Zeppelin companies. By the end of 1946, the French military had shut down both ZF and the Luftschiff Zeppelin airship manufacturer.
Publicly Owned Rebirth
The remainder of ZF’s management decided to renegotiate with the Allies, and as a result, the company began to clear away the rubble in Friedrichshafen and resume transmission output for trucks and tractors. Company facilities in Schwabisch Gmund resumed steering component production, and facilities in Passau began producing engines for tractors.
Other big changes occurred in 1947. The Zeppelin Foundation had specified from its beginnings that if the company’s original purpose of “the promotion of airship transportation” were to diminish or fall through, company ownership would revert to the city of Friedrichshafen. In addition, the company would also be administered by the city, under the name of the Zeppelin Foundation, with use of its revenues for social and charitable purposes. In short, ZF now had a new majority stockholder.
The postwar years were tough in Germany and the company thus allowed farming on its properties. A unique, one-person automobile dubbed the Champion was briefly produced by ZF. But the best news the employees got in 1948 was that the company had been removed from the government dismantle list. Two years later, the Berlin factory began operations.
The ’50s and ’60s
This decade saw the company’s business plan return great rewards. ZF began to broaden its base with diversification. The aircraft, boat, and machine tool businesses provided needed cash flow. In 1954, the company licensed production with United States-based Gemmer for steering units. ZF launched its own version and rapidly became Europe’s main provider. Transmissions for helicopters and machine tools began in 1958.
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When the ’60s arrived, the company launched axle production for trucks and tractors. In 1961, ZF began production of a new automatic transmission for midsized automobiles. Contracts with BMW and Peugeot followed. By mid-decade, exhaust brakes for trucks, transmissions for watercraft, electrical clutch assemblies, steering units, oil pumps, and drive axles were in the product mix. At decade’s end, transmissions for the aircraft industry had also begun.
The company’s core market remained the automotive industry. In this regard, ZF took great pains to lead with innovation. Product quality was also consistent, and great attention was paid to the export market. Between 1967 and 1969, company revenue increased by 50 percent. In addition, more than every third commercial vehicle platform in the fatherland was equipped with a ZF steering unit, transmission, or both.
New Global Markets
In 1970, ZF began a new subsidiary to build passenger-car automatic transmissions. Working with America’s BorgWarner, the new facility was built in Saarbrucken. Within 24 months, BorgWarner dropped out, and the company was renamed ZF-Getriebe GmbH.
Global operations included a presence in Argentina, Austria, Denmark, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This globalization led to associations with new customers. In 1974, Peugeot provided the company with an order for 400,000 automatic transmissions throughout a seven-year period.
Market acceptance and increased profitability allowed ZF to further expand its global presence into Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey. This was completed in the ’80s.
Acquisitions also began during this period. Henschel Flugzeug-Werke, a German manufacturer of aircraft parts, entered a 50 percent partnership with ZF to produce handling and marine technology. A majority share of Lemforder group (another German concern) brought the production of metal, plastic, and rubber parts utilized in axles, steering units, and transmissions. An association was also purchased with Pal Demin in Spain.
The changing market conditions of this period also forced the concern to overcome two global oil crises. In response, ZF turned its engineering expertise into mileage-extending products. The company’s Ecosplit, a revolutionary new transmission offering for heavy trucks, was joined by the Servo, an electronically controlled steering unit.
In 1986, the company established ZF Transmissions Incorporated and the ZF Steering Gear division in the United States. This was also the year of the launch of ZF’s Ecolite S F-542 transmission for Ford Motor Company. By 1990, the company had also begun supplying AMC and Chrysler with components. ZF’s new 4HP24 electronically controlled transmission utilized for Audi’s front-wheel-drive V-8 platform was being sold to Alfa Romeo, BMW, Chrysler, Citroen, Fiat, Jaguar, Lancia, Lotus, Maserati, Peugeot, Rover, Saab, and Volvo. Quality awards were earned from Ford and Jaguar.
Germany Reunites
ZF formed another partnership with two Japanese firms to supply steering pumps and components for steering systems in the United States. A new Ecotronic transmission was launched and promised to cut fuel consumption by 15 percent.
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The ’90s also saw the reunification of East and West Germany with another severe recession created as a result. ZF’s automotive client’s output dropped 30 percent and the company was forced to lay off 5,000 employees. Another financial crisis loomed. Company dividends were erased, and severe cost cutting was instituted. Financial conditions improved by 2000.
It was during this time that ZF attempted to purchase both GM’s Allison Transmission division and VW’s steering operations. But due to antitrust fears in Germany and the United States, this bid was unsuccessful. By 1995, the company did purchase a transmission factory from Mercedes-Benz and begin operations in China and Russia.
The late ’90s also saw ZF producing and assembling whole systems instead of just components. This concept was combined with just-in-time assembly. The idea was to consolidate vendors and save production costs. This new system-partner approach also transferred more responsibility to the supplier for developing new technology monitoring and quality control.
Two German Powerhouses
ZF and Robert Bosch GmbH entered into an agreement in 1998 to co-develop and produce advanced electronic steering systems. Thus, a one-stop-shopping electronic marketplace, dubbed Supplyon AG, was born in 2000.
In a rather surprise move, ZF returned to its roots in 1998, with its re-entry into the airship market, this time for research and tourism. The latest Goodyear blimps are being contracted by ZF.
Entering into the new century, ZF made its largest acquisition ever. It purchased four divisions of its second largest supplier, Mannesmann Sachs AG, for 1.3 billion euros. This purchase made ZF the third largest vendor in the automotive industry with 29 subsidiaries.
ZF Current Drivetrain Offerings
ZF’s latest eight-speed automatic transmission expands on the novel six-speed automatic it developed in 2006. The new eight-speed featured shift times that were faster than human reaction times, direct engine linkage by early stage direct converter lockup, and adaptive automotive software. This unit was said to increase mileage by an additional 6 percent, along with emission reductions.
The company also markets a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission system that allows the driver to experience enhanced sport driving without tractive power interruption along with lower fuel consumption. Two interlocking transmission shafts, each linked to a separate clutch, allow for power shifting without torque loss. ZF claims this new system can be used in all high-performance vehicles. This unit first appeared with Porsche.
ZF’s AS Tronic automatically shifted manual transmission first entered the commercial market a decade ago. Its revolutionary design increased fuel economy and improved commercial business profitability. Cost savings and longevity were the design goals. Today, this unit is available for all commercial-vehicle classes.
Hybrid-drive development is solidly underway, with electric powertrains utilized by city vehicles for short-range applications. In addition, hybrid-drive technology is in production with all components available from a single source. Electric machinery—from the inverter to the electronics—is available through ZF.
The company’s EcoLife supplies the latest technology for local public transportation. A full 25 percent more torque flows through these units, up to 1,475 lb-ft. Transmission longevity has also increased by 40 percent. ZF’s TopoDyn transmission control software features continuously variable shift programs for an ideal operational mode for all route profiles. EcoLife systems are also hybrid ready.


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