Remote design teams are now using web-based collaboration and visualisation tools to help solve potential design problems up-front, reducing time-to-market for new products, writes Dean Palmer.
UK manufacturing must find new ways to compete with, and be more productive than, its foreign rivals. Last year’s bout of redundancies at Rover UK’s Longbridge plant highlights the current pressure on the UK car industry – and UK manufacturing in general.
Manufacturers are constantly striving to attain higher levels of productivity, and get their products to market faster than the competition. But becoming more productive is not an easy task – it requires careful management, some serious investment in IT software (and related infrastructure), and a whole new approach to business practices and workflow. And when all this is achieved, the Internet can help you become even more productive.
Take Ford Motors for instance. More than 6,000 Ford users world-wide are benefiting from SDRC’s C3P technology (C3P stands for CAD, CAM, CAE and product information management software). Ford’s design team for the new Mondeo model managed to shave 13 months off the car’s development time. The car went from initial concept to first-off production in just 24 months – that’s some feat!
And the actual backbone to C3P: SDRC’s I-DEAS for CAD/CAM and CAE; and Metaphase, which allows remote Ford users around the globe to collaborate on design issues. The Mondeo engine was actually designed by remote Ford teams in Japan and Germany, then prepared for manufacture in Detroit, USA – proof that web-based collaboration, or concurrent engineering done globally, really works.
Ford’s corporate plan is to roll out similar ‘collaboration’ solutions for its partners, tier one suppliers and group companies – and Jaguar Cars (now a fully-owned subsidiary) is one company that has quickly taken up the challenge.
Jaguar Cars has recently extended its product range with two successful models: the XK8 and X200. More designs are in the pipeline though, namely the X400 mid-range saloon and the F-type roadster. But Jaguar’s design and engineering teams are already benefiting from investment in new software and infrastructure.
But why all the change at Jaguar? For the last five years or so, Jaguar’s design and engineering teams have had to cope with CAD translation problems, coupled with poor surface representation in finished prototype designs.
According to John Knight-Gregson, product development systems manager at Jaguar Cars: “The company’s original wireframe modelling and partial surface-based product definition software simply could not produce accurate representations of car surfaces and contours.”
As a result, product models were ambiguous, and engineering found them difficult to validate. And any plan to share this information with remote engineering teams was practically impossible.
Then, following Ford’s successful C3P project, a corporate decision was made to use SDRC software at Jaguar. In fact, since May 1997, the Jaguar site at Coventry has been involved in a large-scale, phased implementation of IT software and infrastructure, which is expected to finish in the first quarter of 2002.
Integration is key
Ford was the original catalyst for the project, providing Jaguar with the necessary capital investment, and a decision was made across Jaguar to implement visualisation and web-based collaboration software from Engineering Animation UK (EAI, recently acquired by Unigraphics).
Knight-Gregson explains how EAI has helped productivity at the Coventry site. “There’s a huge number of individual components making up a car: power train assemblies, exhaust systems, engine components and the like … even under the bonnet alone, different design teams are working on different assemblies … the whole bonnet assembly is split up and given to multiple design teams … and all the parts have to fit snugly into the bonnet, which is a real challenge.”
He continues: “Take something relatively simple like the windscreen-washer bottle. One designer completes the prototype for this, sends the design to the patternmaker who produces a wooden representation within two weeks … problems begin to occur when another designer makes a change to a component which impacts the space of the washer bottle!”
But problems such as these – Jaguar designers refer to them as design ‘bucks’ – can be eliminated by using software tools to review design concepts early, prior to the manufacture of costly, higher detail prototypes. And this is where visualisation and collaboration tools come in.
Knight-Gregson comments: “We now fully define the part in the [SDRC] CAD system and every evening we create a visual representation of the product. Now, each morning, engineers have the very latest design iteration and intent, which they can use to evaluate and analyse for clashes and potential design problems.”
“It’s so much faster!” advises Knight-Gregson. “When we first started using the software,” he recalls, “we discovered five possible design clashes within the first five minutes.
“These can typically start with static visualisation issues – such as not allowing enough space for electrical components inside the door panel because of window glass drop,” he explains. “Then you get the dynamic visualisation problems like ensuring you leave enough space under the bonnet for initial engine start-up … when you start your car in the morning, you don’t want the initial jerk of the engine to cause parts to knock into each other. The software allows us to simulate this ‘engine roll’ and look for potential clashes.”
There are now 850 EAI seats at the Coventry site. Says Knight-Gregson: “We also have extra seats at our Birmingham site and the Ford site in Halewood [which Jaguar needs to consult with on many design issues] … we use VisView and VisMock-up to visualise, simulate and analyse 3D models for function and fit; we use VirtualJack for simulating ergonomic car design; and tooling engineers are using VisVSA for tolerance analysis during manufacture.”
According to Knight-Gregson: “The complete implementation will cost millions of dollars.” Not only has Jaguar had to invest in new software – it has also had to improve its IT infrastructure. “We’ve replaced all our Unix workstations with more than 1,000 PCs … and we have plans to equip our tier one suppliers with web-based collaboration software in the near future.”
What about SMEs?
“Web-based collaboration is already happening,” says Knight-Gregson. “Between our Coventry and Halewood sites, designers are regularly working together, testing design changes on-line over the web.”
It all sounds great – but are solutions like these out of reach for the small-to-medium size companies (SMEs)? Not according to Knight-Gregson: “SMEs should be using the software … for one thing, they won’t have to spend a fortune on thousands of software licences. The product itself [VisProducts] is also very easy-to-use and does not require intensive training ... the benefits will start appearing immediately.”
However, there are always going to be cultural issues which need resolving. Knight-Gregson warns: “There is a significant overhead involved in training and educating the workforce. And we also had to spend time re-evaluating our complete design and engineering process. Removing wasteful processes and identifying critical workflows is a lengthy, but necessary process.”
And now? “The software implementation has resulted in the splitting up of Jaguar’s design teams into smaller groups, with a person allocated to supervise each group, whose job it is to ensure that their area of design doesn’t conflict with other groups.”
Author: Dean Palmer