Pursuing an ambitions dream by shaving every possible gram off the weight of a small roverPursuing an ambitions dream by shaving every possible gram off the weight of a small rover


FM, the latest roverFM, the latest rover
HAKUTO’s Takeshi Hakamada (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)HAKUTO’s Takeshi Hakamada (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)

Why have HAKUTO and Suzuki become partners? Suzuki President, CEO and COO Toshihiro Suzuki says, “We are sympathetic to HAKUTO challenging the dream with a small rover, just as we’ve contributed to creating affluent societies through manufacturing small cars.”  HAKUTO team leader Takeshi Hakamada notes, “We’d like to incorporate Suzuki’s technology and expertise nurtured through manufacturing small cars into the rover.”  The operating environment for cars and the rover is different—earth ground for the former and lunar surface for the latter—but their passion for creating “small mobility” is the same. It is this enthusiasm which brought the two partners together.

The origins of car manufacturing at SuzukiThe origins of car manufacturing at Suzuki

Suzuki specialises in small cars, and the origins of that mission can be traced back to the first four-wheeled vehicle it introduced into the market. In 1955, Suzuki launched the Suzulight by combining a 360cc engine with a small chassis measuring approximately 3 metres in length and 1.3 metres in width. The vehicle’s size was based on the unique Japanese minicar standard, but it was an epoch-making design thanks to innovations including the first made-in-Japan, front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout, and the first minicar platform to accommodate four occupants.

Suzuki JimnySuzuki Jimny

Then, in 1970, Suzuki released the Jimny, an unprecedented, compact-real 4WD vehicle.  Suzuki followed that up by launching the Alto in 1979—at about twenty percent less than the price of its competitors, it allowed more people to own cars.  Later, Suzuki moved beyond the minicar segment  and into the compact car market by launching the Vitara, which combined hard-core 4WD functionality with urban styling, and in the process created a worldwide boom in compact SUVs that endures to this day. The company has continued to actively advance into the global market while refining its technological ability to develop compact vehicles. These vehicles, which embody the company’s distinctive style as a manufacturer with the know-how to pioneer new market segments, include the Wagon R, which delivers a spacious interior while conforming to dimensional limitations, in the minicar  segment; the Swift, a sporty hatchback that has achieved success as a global model, in the compact car segment; and the SX4, which pioneered the crossover category that combines the characteristics of passenger cars and SUVs.

Manufacturing small, light automobilesManufacturing small, light automobiles
Vibration testing of PFM1, the initial prototype (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)Vibration testing of PFM1, the initial prototype
(photo courtesy of HAKUTO)

One keyword that has guided Suzuki for many years is “lightweight.” Weight, a key consideration in vehicle development, is directly linked to fuel efficiency, and it also enhances handling and acceleration performance. However, just because a vehicle is made small doesn’t also mean it is light, as their essential role in daily life means cars are subject to rigorous requirements in terms of durability and toughness. A good automobile needs to be light enough to deliver high fuel efficiency, but also robust enough to endure long use and ensure safety. In this world of small-car design, Suzuki’s core competency lies in formulating the optimal blend of mutually contradictory design factors to commercialise successful products.

Thermal vacuum testing of PFM1, the initial prototype (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)Thermal vacuum testing of PFM1, the initial prototype
(photo courtesy of HAKUTO)

For its part, HAKUTO has focused on finding precisely this optimal blend of lightweight and rigidity. Given the enormous cost of launching a rocket to the moon, it is essential to minimise the weight of the rover. At the same time, the level of vibration at launch is unimaginable. If the rover isn’t strong enough, it will break before it even arrives on the moon. So how much strength is enough? It was about one year prior to the launch date, when the HAKUTO was working to define design requirements, that Suzuki offered its assistance. The partnership promised to bring the automaker’s expertise in manufacturing small, light cars to the design of a lunar rover.

A far-reaching partnershipA far-reaching partnership
The PFM3 prototype (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)The PFM3 prototype (photo courtesy of HAKUTO)

As the two partners met to discuss the project, the first issue to arise involved a structural analysis of the rover. HAKUTO had succeeded in reducing the weight of the prototype, which weighed ten  kilograms five years prior, to seven  kilograms thanks to a series of attempts such as the adoption of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) for its body, but the team wanted to make the rover lighter still.

Illustrative photoIllustrative photo

However, building and testing an actual rover while carrying out fine-tuning that may affect rigidity, for example in the material selection, thickness, and location of joints, would take an enormous amount of time and cost. By utilising structural analysis technology employed by Suzuki for car engineering, the team was able to simulate them on a computer. In particular, the ability to analyse the impact on the rover’s wheels when landing on the lunar surface opened up new possibilities for weight reduction. The partnership between HAKUTO and Suzuki has extended across a broad range of other fields as well, including the use of X-ray testing to verify that the CPU that serves as the rover’s brain would be able to withstand the extreme temperature swings on the moon.

A passion for transforming the roverA passion for transforming the rover
FM, the latest roverFM, the latest rover

A select group of expert engineers were gathered, including professionals specialising in computer-aided engineering (CAE) analysis, developers of new materials, and transmission engineers. The partnership with HAKUTO, which began during the summer of 2016, is still evolving. Suzuki continues to offer not only assistance in analysis and testing, but also a broad range of advice and proposals. Suzuki engineers share the passion of the HAKUTO team for shaving off every extra gram of weight, and they’ve only become more passionate about the project as time goes on. Combining technologies from their own everyday world increases the possibilities of the rover moving longer distances on the lunar surface, which is far from everyday , an exciting challenge that brings a gleam to the eyes of Suzuki engineers. The evolution of the rover continues.