January 19, 2013

Valve Body Qualification

Bob Warnke

At the time of this writing, two parties are discussing a fiscal cliff. Party one proposes to leave the political stalemate as is and just wait and see what happens after we go over the edge. That perspective has been compared to repainting a trillion square feet of rusted bridge (Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Bridge Collapse

The second party claims that there are alternatives to the stalemate and that the cliff can be avoided. Their view is to stop the traffic (i.e. programs and entitlements) until the bridge can be re-qualified so they can then decide if it should be repaired or replaced. Then a question was asked: How did we get to this point?

This situation struck me as a perfect parallel to valve body service. Politics aside, let’s review the evolution of valve body testing and the state of current qualification practices. Although traditional visual indicators such as the wiggle, deflection, flashlight and visual bore wear inspection are still useful, we’ll start this review with pressure and vacuum and before finishing up with valve body test stands.

There are currently two procedures for air pressure testing: the unregulated air gun and a calibrated air test plate. The air gun test originated as a clutch air pressure test in transmission manuals before being adapted for valve body testing. A visual leak with an air test is caused by excessive valve-to-bore or end plug clearance. After air testing, the question becomes: What is normal or excessive leakage? The pass/fail decision requires experience to properly make, a downfall of this type of air test. Variables include the air supply, type of air tip, length of time to push out the fluid and noise level of the shop.

Moving along the valve body testing timeline to another decade, we added fixtures to the air test to isolate circuits. Examples include modified EPC solenoids for the 4L60/80-E, 5R55E, 5R55W or F5A, etc. Now a solenoid was modified and air directed to the EPC signal circuit while the unit was assembled. These were cost-effective methods and provided a visual indication of bore wear (Figure 2A and Figure 2B).

Figure 2A:
Figure 2B:
5R55W Modified Solenoids

The next refinement in qualifying a casting was the use of vacuum testing, a technique derived from valve guide/seat testing used in cylinder head remanufacturing. A minimal drop in vacuum occurs when this test is applied to valve-to-bore clearance. Vacuum is obviously the opposite of a pressure test. Where air pressure will push fluid and contaminants out of the bore, vacuum pumps will pull it into gauges and orifices. This means that – for best results when vacuum testing - it’s critically important the assembly is clean and dry. A routine calibration is performed to reduce contamination and also allow for variance in pump capacity. Unlike air testing, which hinges on a rebuilders’ personal experience, vacuum test gauges produce specific data that make for an easier diagnostic learning curve.

To perform a vacuum test, the rebuilder seals a circuit with a plate or pad, moving between circuits to test various areas. Once clean, an entire casting can be checked for valve to bore tolerance. Other benefits include the ability to remove valves from the bore, check boost sleeve wear and the condition of solenoid seats, etc. (Figure 3).

Figure 3:
Vacuum Test Assembly
Figure 4:
Air Test Plate

A valve body air test plate also uses air pressure, but pressure and volume are precisely regulated. In this test an assembled valve body is bolted to a plate that has multiple feed ports to each bore. An air flow meter and a gauge (analog for visual or digital tied to a computer) record a psi drop and flow increase. Generally a new or acceptable assembly is tested and used as the baseline. The greater the variance from a known good measurement, the more clearance there is between the valve and bore. The instrumentation and regulators are used for all applications, but each type of valve body requires its own test plate (Figure 4). There are a few big advantages to this type of testing. Pre-cleaning and the labor involved in fastening and recording gauge equipment is eliminated. The cost to repair also can be estimated and service noted before opening it.

Figure 5:
VBT Graph

Next we come to the arrival of modern hydraulic valve body test stands or VBT’s. Hardware and software advancement has been rapid to duplicate clutch-to-clutch and skip shifting. The key to testing a 6-8 speed valve body or mechatronic unit is to command and record as if the Transmission Control Module (TCM) were running it. This requires extensive solenoid manipulation and data acquisition (Figure 5), specifically the transition or X pattern of multiple solenoids from exhaust to fill. In the vintage VBT and on/off valve bodies, only end-of–the-line clutch pressure was monitored. The operator could control throttle pressure via cable and monitor minimum and maximum pressure, using feel as time. The newer TCM’s, however, focus on time and flow rather than pressure (Figure 6). The VBT of today can test the solenoid output and run a six-speed shift cycle in 2 minutes, without operator involvement.

Figure 6 Figure 7

A valve body test stand requires the addition of a specific plate just like air testing, but has the benefit of including the control program, harness and cabinetry. The payback for this equipment is realized in volume and quality assurance. A remanufacturer understands the VBT reduces R-R and rework from the dyno or vehicle.

This brings us to the current state of transmissions, in which linear solenoids (Figure 7) are now the framework for clutch-to-clutch shifts. They receive a TCM output and convert it to a variable pressure. Due to heat, wear and contamination, the coil reaction and pressure degrade, forcing the TCM to adjust or adapt. Unlike a Federal budget, though, TCM adaptation is not unlimited – it will set a code to stop things from going over the proverbial cliff – but because these solenoids are no longer on/off, they cannot be qualified with old diagnostic methods like air or fixed oil pressure. Similar to the valve body or mechatronic unit, they require testing in a severe environment that includes heat, pressure and cycle time.

Bob Warnke is a Sonnax V.P. of Technical Development and a member of the TASC Force® (Technical Automotive Specialties Committee), a group of recognized industry technical specialists, transmission rebuilders and Sonnax Industries, Inc., technicians.

While Sonnax makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of technical articles at time of publication, we assume no liability for inaccuracies or for information which may become outdated or obsolete over time.