British American Racing (BAR), a relative newcomer to the world of Formula One design, is using web-based collaboration tools to give it an edge over its competitors. Dean Palmer discovers that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
BAR is just like many UK manufacturing businesses. It’s learning how to use the Internet to improve its business and help beat the competition. And the good news is that any manufacturer can apply similar rules to succeed – there’s no special ‘magic’ formula required, just some thoughtful management, coupled with choosing the right IT systems that quickly attract business benefit and help you reach your goal.
For BAR, the ability to produce fast and accurate car design modifications – then quickly relay these changes to the shopfloor and beyond is crucial to the company’s success. And the competition in Formula One this year is as fierce as ever. BAR has been racing in Formula One for two years now – albeit with limited success. The team’s best finishing position to-date is fourth place, but it needs to improve on this in 2001 if it wants to survive and attract the required levels of sponsorship.
BAR’s headquarters is in Brackley, Northamptonshire, where most of the design and manufacturing takes place. More than 100 designers are constantly ‘tweaking’ and modifying the racing car to improve its overall performance: from research and development, mechanical design, aerodynamics, composite design, through to car electricals, on-board instrumentation and electronics.
The performance of a Formula One car is heavily dependent on its aerodynamic shape [as well as engine performance], and so wind tunnel tests are necessary to calculate the optimum shape for the car chassis. Malcolm Oastler, technical director at BAR, is responsible for everything related to the design of the racing car, including the IT to support the design process. He explains the original situation at Brackley: “Two years ago, we were using a blend of 2D and 3D design software … but the accuracy of the surfacing software was questionable to say the least. Wire modelling complex car surfaces doesn’t easily translate into an accurate representation of the finished car … and because our designs weren’t being accurately reflected in the finished prototypes, wind tunnel tests were providing us with inaccurate results. We therefore needed to look for better, 3D modelling software.”
So, from a shortlist of vendors (which included SDRC and Catia) BAR chose a combination of software packages: Unigraphics for all CAD/CAM/CAE; Solid Edge as its preferred mid-range CAD software product; Unigraphics’ iMAN PDM (product data management) web-centric software; and Unigraphics’ recently-developed ProductVision collaboration tool for web-based viewing, analysis and mark-up.
“There was pressure from Honda [BAR’s engine manufacturer and sponsor] to use Catia, but we wanted design and PDM software that would easily integrate with manufacturing’s SAP system [to be implemented by August this year],” says Oastler.
Oastler also sees the ProductVision collaboration tool (which has already been successful in pilot tests, but won’t be fully implemented until April this year) as critical to BAR’s future success. Oastler explains how it will help: “On racing weekends, if the technical engineers at the pit sessions get a problem with a car part – maybe a wishbone failure or brake piston problem, they can access the web-based iMAN [PDM] database in Brackley.
All the information is at their fingertips … they can identify the part and request a design modification. The design team in Brackley makes the necessary changes, the spare is then manufactured and the finished part flown out to the pit-stop engineers in time for the actual race itself. This is the kind of time pressure we are under here.”
The Internet also solves the team’s world-wide time-zone problem. Oastler explains: “Grand Prix races are held all over the world. If the race is in Malaysia, we don’t want any delays in component modifications because of time differences … ProductVision works in real-time and so the problem is eliminated.”
Nick Bosson, chief design engineer at Brackley, is directly involved in the assessment of ProductVision. Only last month, a problem occurred which Bosson believes ProductVision will help solve in the future: “The engineers at the race track needed a cooling duct on an electrical part that kept overheating … I was able to ship the finished part within two days – from concept and rapid prototyping through to manufacturing and despatch.”
It all sounds very impressive, but Bosson had to rely on a certain amount of guesswork to get the job done: “I relied on a trackside description of the fault and worked on a solution from there. But with ProductVision, we’re able to share all the PDM database information in real-time over the web. Most of the fault diagnosis can be done back here in Brackley rather than at the trackside – so there’s no need for large teams of design engineers at the circuit any more.”
But these benefits from using the Internet are just the tip of the iceberg. Like many manufacturing companies, BAR has recognised that it also needs to get its various internal IT systems talking to each other, and suppliers collaborating. So what started as a project to improve the design process, is now ‘snowballing’ into an enterprise-wide integration project.
But why all the change? It started about 12 months ago when the company set up a project team of eight staff to manage the integration of all the company’s IT systems. And the first systems under the spotlight were design, manufacturing and accounting.
According to Matt Harris, CAD manager at BAR, the reason the company decided to integrate “was due to a lack of communication between departments … Production and accounts simply could not talk to each other.”
A staggering 90% of the car (excluding the engine) is manufactured in-house. Last season BAR manufactured eight cars in total – not a huge number, you may think. However, the volume of design changes (and manufactured spares) relating to those eight cars, typically reaches tens of thousands each year! That explains why BAR needs such an impressive (and responsive) manufacturing facility.
There are 90 on the shopfloor altogether, using a wide variety of high-tech CNC machines across the various manufacturing processes: fabrication, composite machining, moulding, precision metal machining, welding, finishing and inspection. The high-calibre CNC machinery on parade is not altogether surprising when you consider that the slightest tolerance fault on any small car component can make the difference between finishing fourth on race day, or not finishing the race at all!
BAR’s current production system is a no-frills, paper-based one. In simple terms, when a part is needed from the shopfloor, designers produce the necessary 2D or 3D model as quickly as possible. A prototype is produced, a works order is then raised and sent down to manufacturing with the appropriate bill of material (BOM) attached. Scheduling of orders is pretty basic as well – Excel spreadsheets for this at present.
But Oastler wants the whole system improved so that works orders have additional information attached, such as CAD drawings and related test data. This will help the shopfloor to better interpret order requirements. Oastler calls this, “the central database project”, or the, “engineering data management system.” And he adds: “Either way the company needs better visibility of what’s happening inside its four walls.” – a crucial issue for most manufacturers today.
The integration project is already well under way, and needs to be completed before the new season starts in August this year. Ten of BAR’s tier one suppliers have already been issued with Unigraphics’ software, to enable collaboration on key areas of car assembly. Bosson reckons savings will come from, “Less CAD translation problems between suppliers and BAR, and a much faster design process.”
Integration is key
Bosson continues: “August this year will see the whole company sharing one central ‘hub’ of information: on the one side, the SAP ERP system and integrated Sage financials; on the other, an integrated CAD/CAM, PDM and ProductVision system from Unigraphics.”
“The key to real visibility though, is making sure the ERP system and PDM software can talk to each other,” says Bosson. Which takes us back to that old manufacturing ‘chestnut’ – engineers and designers having to talk to each other.
Surely the company will experience a culture shock with all this new integrated IT? Not according to Bosson: “As long as you take the time to explain to employees [using the new software] exactly how to use the software, and what the gains from using it are likely to be, they usually conform,” says Bosson.
“The ROI for the whole project is justified through the SAP implementation,” he concludes. “Company-wide teams will now be able to understand one another … workflow improves … the time from product concept to finished part will be cut in half … and the engineer’s time will be freed-up from translating CAD data to concentrating on crucial design improvements and testing.”
Author: Dean Palmer