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Car Companies Steer toward Flexible Manufacturing

Car Companies Steer toward Flexible Manufacturing

As automakers convene this month at the annual SAE World Congress, at least one vendor is pitching PLM and digital manufacturing technology as the linchpin for retooling the industry to meet new, stricter Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

Thanks to legislation passed in December 2007, car companies are in a race to meet a more aggressive CAFE standard of at least 35 mpg by 2020. To do so, there is mounting pressure on automakers to not only swap out their existing car fleets with new, more fuel-efficient models, but also revamp their manufacturing facilities and production processes to be more flexible so multiple models can be built on the same platforms.

"The product cycle typically runs five years in this industry so you're talking one and half product cycles to completely turn over the fleet to get to the new mandates," says Dave Taylor, senior director, Automotive Industry Marketing, for Siemens PLM Software. "This is a gargantuan challenge getting lost in the mix because of what's going on with General Motors and Chrysler. As soon as they get through this, this problem will be staring them right in the face, and what's important is how automakers use these tools to help address the challenge."

According to Taylor, design collaboration tools and digital manufacturing software will be especially important in meeting this challenge, particularly as it relates to creating a flexible manufacturing environment. Flexible manufacturing refers to the ability to changeover a plant in near real-time to produce a different car model based on customer demand or shifting market requirements such as when last year's skyrocketing fuel prices prompted almost immediate demand for more fuel-efficient cars. "The goal is to produce any vehicle in any volume you want at any point in the world," he says. "Most auto makers can't do that."

Using PLM collaboration platforms like Teamcenter or the Tecnomatix digital manufacturing software, automakers can integrate information about the product and the manufacturing processes and make it available early on in the product development cycle. In this way, engineers and designers understand what capabilities exist in manufacturing so they design the vehicles to accommodate those features. For example, something as simple as a lifting point for holding the vehicle on the line can be established as a constraint and fed into a common repository so engineers know beforehand as they create a vehicle design. Similarly, by defining the plant and manufacturing processes in a digital manufacturing solution such as Tecnomatix, engineering organizations can test out new car designs on a virtual manufacturing line to ensure they can be produced without creating any unique tooling or production changes.

Regardless of the new requirements around fuel standards, there are general demands on automotive companies to make sure their factories are more flexible, according to Mike Burkett, vice president at AMR Research Inc. "One of the things factories have to be able to do is accommodate sudden changes in demand regardless of whether they're driven by consumer preferences or regulatory standards," he says. "When demand changes happen, the question is are you set up to do this."

Burkett says there is an uptick in interest around enabling technologies like PLM and digital manufacturing, but admits it's not reached the buying stage as of yet. "It's been out there for a while and it's being used in pockets," he says. "What you don't see as much is well integrated manufacturing planning tied back into product development."

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