The drive to digital design

DN Staff

October 4, 1999

9 Min Read
The drive to digital design

Digital design is here to stay and its implementation is in full swing.

To this end, Ford standardized on the CAD/CAM/CAE software package I-DEAS from SDRC (Milford, OH).

General Motors standardized on Unigraphics from Unigraphics Solutions (St. Louis, MO).

Chrysler standardized on CATIA from Dassault (France).

While the ultimate goals are noble -- save money, get to market quicker, grab a more competitive position in the industry -- the transition has taken time and a lot of "retraining" of design engineers for both manufacturer as well as supplier.

When Ford standardized back in 1994, the process included all their suppliers and manufacturing facilities around the world. The program, dubbed C3P for CAD/CAM/ CAE/PIM (Ford's version of product data management or PDM), is part of Ford's attempt to eliminate the physical prototype.

The first vehicle from Ford's C3P program has yet to roll into a showroom for sale. But cars are coming. For example, the Ford Thunderbird Concept Car debuted at the North American International Auto Show in January. A new recreation vehicle will debut next summer, and a European mid-sized car is scheduled for October 2000.

C3P started in earnest in 1995. But it took time to lay out the whole process, train company engineers, upgrade and train suppliers, as well as integrate every aspect of product development, says Jay Hay, SDRC's vice president of the Ford program office. Hay manages all of Ford's deployment of I-DEAS and its accompanying PDM software, Metaphase, worldwide. After three and a half years, the original five-year plan may stretch into six.

To implement the C3P program, FORD asked all of its suppliers to adopt I-DEAS, Metaphase, and the C3P software internally developed at FORD for communicating designs. By doing this, all four aspects of digital prototype design -- the digital clay where the styling is done, the digital buck or mock-up where all the modules come together, the digital test center where performance is evaluated, and the digital factory where tooling and manufacturing is simulated -- are available for review, inspection, and comment by the parties involved.

"All the major car companies are implementing similar programs," says Hay. "But in my opinion, Ford is advanced in the way they tied the four segments into their C3P program, making the designs available and accessible to their suppliers and designers around the world."

Today's suppliers are part and parcel of the process, says Hay. "Suppliers are now designing 50% or more of today's cars." Having such a direct line of communication between supplier and manufacturer is a real advance, eliminating down time and potential mistakes.

Brad Kuehn, design manager from ADAC Plastics, Inc. (Grand Rapids, MI), agrees. "Metaphase has perhaps the biggest impact in our ability to design parts faster and more accurately from the beginning because we are always sure that we are viewing the most up-to-date designs," he says.

"Metaphase provides an instant data exchange direct with Ford even if they aren't our files," says Kathy Gross, ADAC CAD designer. "We can go into Metaphase for the newest review of glass or sheet metal design. Other suppliers can pull up our part to see how our latch will pick up their rod."

ADAC, a Tier 1 supplier for Ford, most recently designed the new Thunderbird door handles. "Ford considers handles like jewelry," says Timothy Fullmer, manager of engineering services at ADAC. Usually there aren't any flat surfaces or perfectly round ones and they must have a high degree of integrity.

The Thunderbird handle is a standard paddle, a horizontal lift-up style. However, the proprietary design makes it one of the first door handles on the market that does not make a noise when the user releases the flap, says Fullmer.

Designing door handles is more complex than one may think, says Kuehn. Twenty two parts, including pins, springs, housing, latching mechanisms and cables, must fit into the pocket of an increasingly thin door panel and not interfere with opening and closing the window pane. They have to function every time, must be aesthetically pleasing, and ergonomically correct. They must be able to withstand side and rear impact.

"We start from scratch for every design. For example, the sheet metal skin isn't the same for any car design," says Kuehn. The interface with the handle and the crown of the material is always different. Style drives everything at the beginning of the program.

When ADAC first won the door handle contract from Ford, they did not use I-DEAS. ADAC engineers designed with a 3D surfacing and wireframe system. I-DEAS is a solids-based system. "Building parts required a new thought process," says Gross. "Before, I put lines in the computer and put a 'fabric' or surface on the line. Now I'm starting with blocks and cylinders and cut out areas that I want."

"Parametrics are definitely the wave of the future and all product development will involve this process," she says.

"But learning I-DEAS was probably the same as learning any other program," says Gross. "It took me about six months before I felt proficient and about a year before I was really comfortable."

"Training is key," says Kuehn. "There is no substitute for taking the time in the very beginning to understand how a software package works."

Knowing the importance of training, Ford started a Global Supplier Integration program. Thirty people from Ford along with 30 people from SDRC work with engineers from 30 different programs. When a supplier buys a solution seat, the company also is buying training and assistance at the same time.

The training was helpful, says Kuehn, but to ensure a speedy and efficient transition to the new system, he hired engineers with SDRC experience. "I have only top notch people working for me," says Kuehn, "but training on a new system is never easy. We went out and hired people who had five or six years experience with SDRC and these people became our in-house teachers."

In addition to I-DEAS, ADAC uses CATIA from Dassault for surfacing and directly translating the information into I-DEAS. "I-DEAS handles data well if you bring the information from another package," says Kuehn. "But it has a hard time generating the shapes itself."

Originally Ford said that all its suppliers had to use ICEM surfacing, a high-level surfacing package. "Now this was hard to learn," says Fullmer. So six months later, Ford came out and said the supplier could use any CAD program they were comfortable with as long as it was Class A and could be directly translated into I-DEAS.

I-DEAS proved to be helpful for running FEA analysis and for sharing data. Allied Signal, which supplies ADAC with the polymer resin material for the handle, used I-DEAS prior to the C3P program. "Most automotive handles are now made out of nylon," says Kuehn. "Allied Signals performs mold flow and plastic analyses for our designs. These tests help us evaluate any weak areas," he says.

Here again is where communication comes into play, says Kuehn. Allied Signal can pick up ADAC's designs and run the necessary tests without any translation or loss of data. "With C3P's PIM program, we can share data easily and quickly."

Now they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. "In the beginning it was hard. But last year we saw leaps and bounds in our ability to work with the system," Kuehn says. In the long run, the new system will cut door handle design time from the traditional 10 to 12 weeks to six to eight, he believes.

Getting Tier One suppliers on board will make digital prototyping work, says SDRC's Hay. "But we still have lots of work."

Virtual reality for the virtual prototype

Now that we have this digitally designed prototype of a car, how are we going to view it? With virtual reality, of course.

Robert Mehall, Director of the EDS Center (Detroit, MI) and Joseph Shaver, Manger of Business Development, offer services for car manufacturers, suppliers, and potential buyers to do just that.

Using visualization and simulation tools on the market, EDS offers a facility where clients can view and interact with a life-size virtual prototype in real time. "CAD now is all 3D," says Mehall, "but that 3D is still projected on a 2D screen."

EDS provides 3D stereo equipment that displays two images simultaneously. When a user dons a pair of virtual reality glasses that interact with the computer-generated image so that left eye sees one image and the right eye sees the other, the wearer has the impression of depth.

At the EDS Center, clients can view their newest creation either on a 24 x 6 ft power wall or 3D screen, or in the "CAVE." The CAVE is a cube-shaped area where the car is projected onto the floor from the ceiling. "This method makes people feel like they are inside the vehicle. With this greater degree of inversion, they can interact with the interior better," says Mehall.

Engineers can import any CAD file and create a car of bits and bytes with compatible visualization and simulation software. "We offer vender independence," says Shaver. EDS partners with software and hardware companies to customize virtual reality solutions for clients. These include such companies as SGI, Alias Wavefront, PTC, Unigraphics, Dassault, Deneb Robotics, Eon Reality, EDI, and Opti Core.

If a company wants to build such a facility at their plant, consultants from EDS advise what hardware and software is most compatible with their CAD/CAM/CAE systems. Although individual client programs are customized from tools off the shelf, EDI developed priority codes to easily translate data between software packages to the big screen and back to the client.

Who needs a life-sized display of their car? "Virtual reality is great for design reviews," says Mehall. This technique is useful to test consumer preferences, likes and dislikes.

Instead of bringing expensive physical prototypes to auto shows, Shaver suggests that manufacturers can bring a computer-generated vehicle. Potential buyers can test the car style by color, cycling through the rainbow with a keystroke. Designers can view the car on the streets of Detroit, in a showroom, or on an airfield in Colorado.

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