It's not a screaming infant anymore.
The concept of the fully digital car, which the automotive industry has been nurturing, is finally cutting its teeth.
In the early years, the concept merely meant that each vehicle was designed in CAD. And the highest goal of American car manufacturers was to catch up to the Asians' high quality and fast design cycles. Today, the Big Three automakers have largely succeeded in that goal, cutting their design time from roughly 50 to 30 months, without undermining product quality.
So now what? Today, companies are still using DMUs, "digital mock-ups," but they're modeling the entire process, not just a single vehicle. And while design engineers still do all the heavy lifting, everyone from suppliers and marketers to customers and management is tapping into the digital data.
They're doing it through web-enabled software suites with generic names like Product Data Management (PDM), Product Information Management (PIM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERP), and Collaborative Product Commerce (CPC). There are examples in all the major auto companies: Ford with SDRC's I-DEAS, GM with Unigraphics Solutions' Unigraphics, Daimler/Chrysler with IBM/Dassault's CATIA.
Whatever you call it, the effort is finally bearing fruit. The first generation of cars designed in a completely digital environment includes: GM's 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue and Pontiac Grand Prix cars and GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups; Ford's 2001 Explorer, Thunderbird, and Mondeo; and Daimler/Chrysler's 2003 Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country and Voyager minivans.
Daimler/Chrysler says the process took three steps, spread over the past decade. Ten years ago, the company moved from the model of the isolated engineer to a "platform team approach" which required that all the disciplines gather at a single meeting—including product planning, design, engineering, manufacturing, procurement and supply, finance, sales, and more.
The next step was to move to the Chrysler Development System (CDS), which linked the company's three-pronged package of tools—DELMIA for digital manufacturing, CATIA for digital design, and Enovia for the integration and exchange of all this information, says Rishi Madabusi, IBM's manager for Product Lifecycle Management.
And finally, in August the company announced "Fast Car," an Internet-based plan designed to link the CATIA pipeline with the business infrastructure, so design changes can be communicated instantly, and management can constantly monitor each project.
This vision is a long way from a single engineer diagramming car parts in his office cubicle. In fact, the system is not even used solely on automobiles—Chrysler's new Jeep Cherokee plant in Toledo, OH, scheduled to open in Spring' 01, was modeled digitally in CATIA before construction began. Its designers studied every detail, from the floor plan to water pipe layout to the flow of vehicles along assembly lines, ensuring there was room for machines to operate, and for people to do their work.
So what's it like to design a car in CDS, compared to the "old fashioned" way?
"The key result is that we can make our final product decisions closer to the time we deliver products to the market," says Robert Dupuis, CDS senior manager. "That keeps the 'design window' open longer, and increases the opportunities for introducing innovations while reducing costs."
For instance, if there's a cutting-edge voice recognition technology, engineers can design the rest of the car first, holding the dashboard until last, and fit the new technology into the car at the last minute.
"We take pride in our innovation, so we need to leave time for creativity in the process, and CDS helps us do that," says Max Gates, manager of advanced technology and environmental communications at Daimler/Chrysler.
And CDS allows many designers to work in parallel on a single project, so they can work faster and create more iterations, says Madabusi.
"Different people can work on different features. So the virtual model gets split up then put back together," he says. And those people aren't necessarily all company employees. "Sixty-five to 75% of each car is produced by someone else besides Chrysler," he says. That can include styling, trim, chassis, powertrain, electrical system, tool and die design, and plant and assembly procedures.
It's this ability of CDS to connect engineers in remote locations that is most empowering.
"Web initiatives make a lot of things possible you couldn't do otherwise," he says. "Like creating 3D virtual reality environments."
It also allows engineers to sate modern drivers' demands for a great variety of vehicles.
"I came to this country 25 years ago, and there were maybe three models of Mercedes," says Madabusi. "Today there's probably 35 models, with 20 different engine options."
But there's also a downside to wiring the design process—all this newfound efficiency creates its own new set of challenges. "There can be 30 times as many links to data as there is data itself," says Madabusi. "And when 75% of a car is produced by someone else besides Chrysler, we need to keep close track of the product development infrastructure."
In fact, the biggest question for Chrysler is how to use its scads of digital data. "I could produce a manual for you which is specific to your car," he says. "Usually they're written for every possible combination of car, but it would be nice if it were written for my tires, my radio, my engine options, my upholstery…You can actually do that today, but it's not profitable yet, so no one has."
So what happened to the dream of creating a fully digital car, one that exists only in CAD prototype until a production version rolls off the assembly line?
"We don't understand enough physics," says Madabusi. "In crash simulations and regulations, they say 'I want to see your car bang into a brick wall at 35 mph—I want to see physical pictures, not simulated pictures.'"
Ford uses a similar approach, called the Ford Product Development System (FPDS), built between 1992 and 1994. The company hired SDRC in 1995 to provide a unified C3P infrastructure (CAD, CAM, CAE, PIM), with the express goal of getting products to market faster and reducing the number of prototypes, says Jay Hay, SDRC's vice president of the Ford program office.
Like its Big Three brethren, Ford's initial goal was to speed the product development cycle to 36 months, and get on par with the fast Japanese development cycle, Hay says. Today, Ford has reduced its average cycle from 55 to 30 months.
The old process used 200-300 actual, physical prototypes to create each new model of car, split into three stages: the mechanical buck, the confirmation prototype, and the verification prototype. The new system has eliminated the first stage and greatly reduced the second, Hay says.
Ford is also struggling with customers' demands for a wider choice of vehicles. For instance, the Mondeo is built on Ford's "C-Car" platform, which forms the basis for Mazda's version in Asia, Ford's version in North America, and Volvo's version in Europe. "That used to be a sequential process, but now it's simultaneous," Hay says. "That's concurrent engineering, and we've been talking about it for 20 years."
And like Daimler/Chrysler, Ford is finding that concurrent engineering brings its own, new challenges—"Before, engineers could go away in a corner and work on their part. Now, they have to do it simultaneously," Hay says. "If they screw up, everybody knows about it."
The mantra at General Motors echoes these trends—"We have to work in PDM, not with PDM," company executives said in a July press conference when they extended a collaborative engineering agreement with Unigraphics Solutions.
When GM began deploying Unigraphics in 1996, they wanted to cut development time from 42 to 24 months. Today GM has trained 7,200 engineers on Unigraphics, and they have 21 vehicles on this short cycle. So what's next, even shorter cycles?
No—once more, it's all about communication. The goal of the new agreement in July was to tap Unigraphics' iMAN, an Internet-centric product content management solution, to "provide GM's product teams, located around the globe, with simultaneous access to an unprecedented amount of digital vehicle information," the companies said.
Unigraphics serves this goal with iMAN, c-Commerce (collaborative commerce), and UG WAVE, a knowledge-based CAD/CAM/CAE package designed to allow users to model large, complex assemblies as parametrically controlled systems.
So based on practices at Ford, GM, and Daimler/Chrysler, it's fair to say that the digital car concept has grown from the infancy stage to early adolescence. With the Big Three's nurturing, it's on schedule to reach maturity. The only question is when?