Summer Projects Series 2: Komatsu ECM Tuning

For the second part of our summer project series, Adrenaline Diesel journeyed to Grand Prairie, Alberta to collaborate with one of our primary vendors on some tricky Komatsu ECM tunes. Today we invite you to join our field technician, Christian, on-site as he works to fine-tune and streamline the performance on a small fleet of diesel-burning, off-road service vehicles using his experience and depth of knowledge regarding Komatsu's engine control modules (ECM).

Adrenaline Diesel Tech starting the tuning process on a Komatsu

Understanding Your Machine's ECM

Whether your weapon of choice is an excavator, front-end loader, skid steer, or OTR tractor-trailer, the engine's ECM, also known as an engine control unit (ECU), serves as the vehicle's brain, dictating a series of complex interactions that make the equipment function properly. At its core, the ECM unit serves as your vehicle's central nervous system, coordinating engine functions based on information from a vast array of sensors located around the vehicle.  The ECM computer monitors values derived from these sensors to make sure that operating conditions are optimized, and if they're not, the ECM adjusts the system's output.

Without an ECM computer, your machinery couldn't convert fuel into energy. The ECM is responsible for regulating tasks such as:

  • Fuel injection
  • Spark
  • The vehicle's electrical systems
  • Throttle position
  • How the vehicle handles emissions and exhaust

Under normal operating parameters, it's the job of the ECM to make sure each of the engine's systems work seamlessly in conjunction with one another. An ECM, however, is not always factory designed with the vehicle's peak performance in mind. That's where our tech Christian and his ECM tuning expertise come into play.  

What does an ECM Tune Accomplish?

The ECM Tuning process is designed to squeeze additional power, output, and efficiency from your equipment that would otherwise be limited by the manufacturer's original settings. A successful ECM tune seeks to bring your equipment's performance to peak level. Tuning your engine control module can:

  • Boost horsepower
  • Lower fuel consumption
  • Optimize emissions

Despite being simple on paper, the tuning process itself can be surprisingly complex. It takes an experienced technician to ensure that engine timing remains functioning properly, otherwise, unintended damage can occur to the vehicle.    

What Goes into an ECM Tune?

At its core, ECM tuning is less about picking up a wrench and more about picking up a computer cable and laptop. The goal is to reroute and optimize both the fuel and spark mapping of the engine There are two main ways of performing an ECM tune:

  • Chiptune
  • Software update

Historically, the ECM unit itself would have to be removed from the machinery, and a custom chip with upgraded routing parameters installed instead. Modern equipment, like our fleet of Komatsu engines, is much easier to work with. Rather than physically tinkering with the computer itself, the technician "pushes" a software update to the ECU. With the right equipment, software flashes such as this can even be performed remotely.

While physical labour is less intensive with a software-based ECM tune, some technical acumen is still necessary. The vehicle in question must be hooked up to a computer running specific software that allows the technician to view its existing parameters and change them as they see fit. Knowing what values to change the mapping to, however, is an art form whose mastery comes through experience. That's where Adrenaline Diesel's expertise comes in.

Performing a Delete

Deletes are another key component of the ECM tuning process. OEM exhaust and pollution control systems are responsible for generating a great deal of engine noise. Engine noise consists of the harmful exhaust fumes that deposit gunk and soot as it re-circulates back through the engine. Not only is exhaust physically bad for your engine, but it also causes you to lose valuable torque and horsepower.

Performing a delete is a complex, multi-step process that involves removing and/or modifying exhaust components while simultaneously updating the engine control module to perform under updated exhaust parameters.  

Deletes are tricky territory, however. In both Canada and the United States, tampering with your equipment's emissions control system is illegal. That's why performing a delete and ECM tune is best left to someone with an expert level of experience like our tech Christian.

Tuning the Komatsu Fleet

At the start of the project, Christian landed in front of a fleet of off-road service vehicles, all powered by Komatsu's signature line of engines. The tuning itself was a two-step process. Step one involved a software-based engine control unit tune-up which Christian completed onsite. Once he had flashed a new, updated version of the software build onto the entire fleet of vehicles, the second step involved performing the delete.

The delete was a two-step process as well. The initial step was performed remotely and involved additional tinkering with the vehicles' software. Christian began servicing the fleet by erasing all applicable error codes tied to each vehicle's exhaust system (hence the term"delete").  

Once all the software issues had been properly resolved, Christian began by removing all the exhaust-based components responsible for the loss of horsepower and engine-clogging soot build-up. For our road trip to Grand Prairie, it was the DPF, SCR, and VGT systems on which Christian focused his efforts. Together, these three systems regulate the off-road vehicle's diesel exhaust functions. The diesel particulate filters (DPF), for example, catch harmful soot and hold it until it can safely regenerate into a less harmful form.

The SCR, or selective catalytic reduction unit, introduces diesel emissions fluid (DEF) to any leftover gunk, further breaking it down and eliminating it. The VGT units refer to the variable geometry turbochargers that each off-road vehicle has equipped.

In order to ensure that each vehicle functioned properly once the exhaust components were removed, Christian and the team at Adrenaline Diesel had to create simulated components. These custom-built cans were a joint venture between our staff and the Komatsu vendor, taking the bulk of the time to design, fabricate, and install. For off-road vehicles, the engine's functioning parameters had to be precise. The cans that we created and installed were one of a kind, and they integrated seamlessly with the vehicles' other systems, making the mock components indistinguishable from the real systems.

Project Wrap Up

Performing the ECM tune and delete on the Komatsu fleet was a lot of hard work in terms of software adjustments and physical modifications. It took just over three weeks beginning to end, but the results were well worth it. Our team got to show off their expertise, while our vendor got a fleet of precision-tuned off-road vehicles with added horsepower and optimized fuel efficiency. Please join us on our next adventure as Adrenaline Diesel's summer project series continues!

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