SAM Tech’s EFI Calibration Courses Prepare Students For The Future

There’s no denying we are on the precipice of a new era in automotive engine control — much like when EFI took replaced carburetion from the OEMs. We stand similarly positioned as complex engine controls are both allowing for previously unheard of capabilities of engines straight off the showroom floor, while simultaneously making the life of the aftermarket “tuner” much more difficult.

However, the School of Automotive Machinists and Technology (SAM Tech), long keeping students on the cutting edge of automotive machining, has seen the writing on the wall. The school’s cadre developed a program to bring students up to speed with the latest and greatest technology in automotive tuning and calibration.

“There’s a big disconnect in the industry between people who want to learn about tuning, and what tuning actually involves. The calibration process is not for everyone,” says Jason Haynes, EFI calibration program director at SAM Tech. “Calibration is a very intense process because you have to understand how EFI works, how the ECM logic works, and ultimately what the ECM is trying to control. Moreover, you must also have a thorough understanding of airflow and engine dynamics.”

SAM Tech utilizes a variety of teaching locations — not just a classroom — in order to expose the students to the results of learning to calibrate. Not system-specific, graduating students have familiarity and experience using the most common EFI calibration softwares and systems on the market.

Not designed for a casual enthusiast who wants to be able to tune his own car, the SAM Tech program is designed to prepare someone for gainful, professional employment in the ECU calibration field. Durning the 28-week program, the complete series of seven courses covers a wide gamut of topics. These include basic electrical and tuning theory through advanced understanding of today’s modern OEM and aftermarket ECU systems and the associated tools of the trade.

Understanding the Physics of Tuning

One thing stressed by SAM Tech (both in the pre-enrollment information and throughout the course itself) is this isn’t just a course for anyone who wants to pound keys. It requires a thorough understanding of the operation of an Otto cycle engine, along with the ability to understand how all of the different systems — both mechanical and electronic — work together in order to make power.

The parameters controlled by an EFI system are more than just trial and error guesses, stumbled upon as a working combo. The SAM Tech course teaches students all of the behind-the-scenes math and calculations used to determine each value for every parameter of adjustment in the ECU.

“A two- or three-day weekend seminar does a good job of teaching the tuning process, but they assume that you already have the background knowledge in engine theory, airflow dynamics, valve events, camshaft design, turbos, superchargers, and nitrous,” explains Haynes.

“At SAM Tech, our curriculum teaches students all of that background information, as well as the math and physics behind it, to truly understand what the ECM is trying to achieve and control. We then roll that knowledge into making calibration changes in different software platforms to optimize performance as well as drivability and reliability.”

In the near future, there will be a large separation between tuners and calibrators. – Jason Haynes, SAM Tech EFI calibration program director 

The need for such deep understanding really comes down to the the intense amount of control able to be exerted over a modern engine. Because of advancements in calibration technology and modern engine designs, it’s easy to get behind the curve and get lost amid the millions of lines of code within a modern ECU. Not just because of the amount of data, but because you aren’t cognizant of how all the systems you are able to control are interrelated.

Engine and chassis dynos are amazing tuning tools, but are significantly different from one another. Additionally, there are differences between a dyno and real world driving, which can affect the calibration of the car. SAM Tech addresses all of these in the curriculum, with trips to the track as part of the learning process, to see how the three test mediums vary.

“With the advent of the new Ford Coyote small-blocks, you can move the intake and exhaust valves independently of each other. If you don’t have an understanding of valve events, and how moving the cams in a certain direction — and by how much — affects airflow, then you’re going to be lost,” says Haynes.

“On a new twin-turbo, direct-injected, variable-valve-timing engine found in the latest Cadillac ATS-V, we can easily gain 100 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque, at the wheels, through calibration changes alone. Some of that gain is attributable to controlling the electronic wastegates on the turbos. But a lot of it can be attributed to managing the valve events and airflow modeling as well. We can build pressure where we need to with the turbos, and alleviate pressure where we need to through the valve events.”

Power-adders are a large part of the performance aftermarket. SAM Tech not only focuses on how power-adders differ from naturally aspirated calibrations, but how the various power-adders differ from each other as well. Students learn each type of system’s unique requirements.

Tuning As Opposed To Calibrating

One thing Haynes notes, is the difference between a “tuner” and a “calibrator”. While it may seem like a pedantic distinction on the surface, it does in fact, go deeper than just a title. An extreme example of the difference could be someone who posts on Craigslist and offers “street tunes” where they sit in your passenger seat while you make WOT pulls, compared to a dyno shop who takes the time to completely refine your ECU’s maps at different vehicle parameters.

“In the near future, there will be a large separation between tuners and calibrators,” asserts Haynes. “Anyone with HP Tuners or an SCT programmer can call themselves a tuner. In comparison, calibrators must not only have a thorough and intense understanding of engine and airflow dynamics, but also understand the math and physics that govern the dynamics, control functions, and calculations the computer is performing.”

A proper calibration for a turbocharger is a lot more than just a few tables and parameters in an ECU. It comes from actually understanding the compressor and turbine’s efficiencies and inefficiencies in the operating range. While understanding compressor maps in depth is considered dark magic in some circles, The SAM Tech students are made competent in the practice.

Part of the differentiation is simply the amount of education someone has on the subject. As pointed out earlier, shorter courses assume a level of prior knowledge and usually focus on the features of one specific system, not the underlying theories of calibration.

“A one- or two-day seminar can give you a general overview, but to have a complete A-to-Z understanding of how to calibrate, you need to learn engine and airflow dynamics to understand all the equations and calculations the computer is doing behind the scenes,” says Haynes.

It’s important to note, Haynes isn’t disparaging the shorter tuning courses at all, but pointing out the differences between the two. You’re essentially comparing a multi-day seminar to a six-month, multi-course, college-level program. The comparison really isn’t fair to either program.

Learning to calibrate with variable camshaft timing, rather than just locking it out and pretending it’s not there, is a large part of the SAM Tech curriculum, and can be seen as the mark of a good calibrator. While it’s easy to ignore the new technologies, embracing and utilizing them to their potential opens a lot of doors.

“A good example is the torque management systems on modern performance cars. With electronic throttle-bodies and torque modulation, the computer can shut the throttle to limit torque output and also limit ignition spark delivery,” Haynes uses as an example.

“A lot of tuners run into this problem. If you understand how torque calculations and models work in modern engines and the math equations the computer performs behind the scenes to calculate and anticipate airflow and torque, then you can solve the problem. Once you’ve calculated and analyzed all the data, you then need to make calibration changes to improve all-around performance.”

Another point Haynes makes, is there is more to life than peak power numbers and the WOT load cells. A fact that can sometimes escape people. “This isn’t just about making dyno numbers, but also maintaining drivability as a car transitions from stock to modified to heavily modified,” says Haynes.

Even though the calibration courses focus on EFI systems, the camshaft is still the brain of the engine. The course spends a significant amount of educating students on what is actually occurring in the valvetrain. With that foundation, making calibration changes further down the line of the system start making a lot more sense.

“It’s also important to understand and consider emissions with performance modifications and calibrations as well. It’s kind of taboo to talk about in our industry, and everyone wants to sweep it under the rug, but now is the time to discuss and consider limiting emissions with performance enhancements. Paying attention and understanding it now will help separate your business from the rest of the pack.”

Embracing Variable Valve Timing As A Tool, Not An Obstacle

Obviously, as technology changes, it’s up to the individual to embrace or reject the change. The abundance of cam phaser lockout kits on the market shows there are many who don’t embrace the latest technology the aftermarket has to offer. But, then you have people like Haynes who decide to actually embrace the new changes and learn to utilize the new features to their advantage.

As OEM engines become increasingly more complex, being able to calibrate on a much higher, near-OEM level is going to be mandatory in order to work with the latest and greatest powerplants. Dealing with things like factory forced-induction, variable valve timing, and direct- and dual-injection fueling strategies will separate the men from the boys. Knowing this, SAM Tech offers a solid foundation in those areas.

“The computer controls the engine. But as far as performance goes, the camshaft is the brain of the engine. Understanding valve events is paramount, especially in engines — like the Coyote — which have independent intake and exhaust cam control,” Haynes says. “The tables in the calibration files control the intake and exhaust valve opening and closing events. But you have to know which direction to go in and exactly how far to go when making changes. If you don’t understand valve events, then you can’t properly calibrate any new motor with variable valve timing.”

Looking at something like Ford’s Voodoo engine — the 8,200-rpm, 5.2-liter, 12.0:1-compression DOHC engine with a flat-plane crank — the market was initially extremely hesitant to add forced-induction on top of such a stout package. Enter a calibrator well-versed in variable valve timing.

More than just a classroom or dyno cell, SAM Tech is involved with real racers in real competition who are chasing real championships. In addition to providing awesome real-world examples and situations for the students, it also gives the students a taste of the responsibility and excitement of what they will ultimately be doing.

“Everyone was scared to put a supercharger on these motors because they have 12.0:1 compression. Just because you have 12.0:1 static compression doesn’t mean you have 12.0:1 dynamic compression. If you know how to utilize the dynamic compression by changing the valve events, then you can safely apply boost on top of 12.0:1 static compression even on pump gas, up to a certain point,” explains Haynes.

“With the GT350, we swung the cam around to induce overlap to bleed off two pounds of boost, around peak torque. At high-RPM, we swung the cam back around to maintain boost pressure. If someone saw how flat the boost curve was they wouldn’t believe what they were seeing. It’s all about figuring out where you want to build cylinder pressure, and where you want to alleviate some of that pressure. Lots of people struggle with that concept simply because they don’t understand engine dynamics and valve events, and how you can control and harness its potential.”

Direct and To the Point

Direct-injection is another recent innovation that seems to scare some and excite others. As with most new technologies, there is a learning curve, and you have to break out of your routine to embrace it. As it’s assumed that you aren’t coming into the calibration courses with any established tuning “bad habits,” SAM Tech makes sure students are familiar with the unique differences with direct injection in comparison to port injection.

“When the new GM Gen-V LT1 first came out, people tuned them just like they’d tune an LS engine. Those calibration strategies didn’t work because the fueling strategy and torque modulation were drastically different. You’d end up with an air/fuel ratio that’s too rich and a wavy dyno sheet,” Haynes explains.

“Direct-injected engines don’t like the same air/fuel ratio as port-injected motors, and they can also skew wideband O2 sensor readings with varying fuel temperature and combustion chemistry. People can end up chasing their tails with direct-injection because it requires a different understanding and strategy behind delivering fuel to the cylinder.”

In addition to the diploma from SAM Tech, Students can graduate with factory certifications. Holley offers Tier 1, 2, and 3 certifications throughout the SAM Tech calibration course.

In addition to just the fueling strategy, there are also more fuel pump controls to manage, with the low- and high-pressure systems to be controlled. “The fuel systems in the LT1s have a low-pressure pump in the tank, and a high-pressure pump driven off a cam lobe. You have to understand the dynamics of the entire fuel and injection system to develop a calibration strategy for direct-injection,” says Haynes.

“You also have to study the injector spray pattern to make sure you don’t end up with lean pockets and to ensure the fuel properly mixes and atomizes. Adding boost disrupts that spray pattern, so you have to adjust the calibration to compensate.”

Then to further complicate things, you now have manufacturers incorporating both port and direct injection. This not only complicates the fueling strategy, but makes the fueling tables that much more complex. “Cars equipped with direct-injection and port-injection from the factory primarily rely on the direct-injection system at wide-open throttle. You can control the blend of the fuel delivered through the port- and direct-injection systems through the ECM,” Haynes explains.

“As you increase the boost in cars like the Raptor, you can increase fuel flow through the port-injection system. While on direct-injected motors like the LT1, you have a very short window of time for the injectors to spray fuel into the chambers at high RPM, limiting the amount of fuel you can add.”

To fix the situation, the aftermarket is moving towards what can seem like a complex solution but makes for an absolutely amazing teaching scenario. “A popular solution is leaving the factory direct-injection system in place, and then installing an aftermarket port-injection EFI system to assist with fueling at WOT. This gives you the best of both worlds,” says Haynes.

Students from one of SAM Tech’s recent classes built a supercharged Ford Coyote engine for an episode of Engine Power on PowerNation TV. The team put its newly acquired calibration skills to use and coaxed 1,200 horsepower out of the combination.

“With that type of setup, a C7 Corvette can make 1,200-plus rear-wheel horsepower on race gas or E85 without any methanol injection. In addition to providing extra fuel at WOT, the port injection system cleans the valves, more evenly distributes fuel, and can even reduce emissions in some cases.”

Obviously, technology will continue to march forward, unabated by those who long for the good-old-days, or search for workarounds to the latest advancement afforded by ECU engineers from the OEMs and the aftermarket. Much like SAM Tech makes sure its students are on the cutting edge of the industry with its machining programs , it is now doing the same on the calibration side.

By employing personnel with varied backgrounds in the ECU calibration industry, and staying on top of the latest hardware and strategies, SAM Tech’s EFI Calibration courses are sure to prepare students for a career in the calibration field, be it on the OEM or aftermarket side.

SAM Tech EFI Calibration Program Component Courses

SAM Tech’s EFI Calibration Program is composed of seven courses, each of which builds on the previous course. Each course is designed to be four weeks long, for a total program length of 28 weeks – or just over six months.

EFI 501 – Introduction To EFI Tuning, Tools, Systems And Safety
EFI 502 – Engine Tuning Concepts And Theory
EFI 503  -Understanding Of Basic Electronics
EFI 504 – Dynamometer Operations
EFI 505 – Stock Computer Training And Engine Diagnostics
EFI 506 – Aftermarket Advanced Electronics
EFI 507 – Data Collection, Analysis, And Track Tuning

Article Sources

About the author

Greg Acosta

Greg has spent fifteen years and counting in automotive publishing, with most of his work having a very technical focus. Always interested in how things work, he enjoys sharing his passion for automotive technology with the reader.
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