Automakers seek IT benefits beyond car design

DaimlerChrysler AG is in the early stages of automating the way its manufacturing plants are designed, a project that will require an eight- to nine-figure investment and is aimed at reducing the company’s new-vehicle production cycles by up to 30 per cent.

The world’s third-largest automaker announced its Digital Factory plans at its North American Innovation Symposium in New York city last November. The initiative is an attempt to simulate the entire production process – from initial drawings of facilities to final functioning assembly lines – “before one brick is put in the ground,” said Susan J. Unger, CIO at DaimlerChrysler.

As part of the project, DaimlerChrysler expects to use manufacturing design, simulation and visualization tools developed by Dassault Systemes SA to help design, build and retrofit all of its worldwide manufacturing plants by 2005, Unger said. The Digital Factory plan comes two years after the automaker launched a similar initiative called Fast Car, also based on Dassault’s technology, to speed up its vehicle design work.

DaimlerChrysler began using the Digital Factory approach in February 2002 as part of a project to build a new engine-manufacturing plant in Koelleda, Germany, for both Mitsubishi Corp. and “smart” vehicles. Unger said the factory designers used Dassault’s Catia computer-aided design software as well as virtual manufacturing software made by Delmia, a subsidiary of Paris-based Dassault.

Cutting dollar-per-car costs

The use of the tools is expected to result in reductions of roughly 30 per cent in construction time and 10 per cent in per-square-foot plant floor costs at the Koelleda plant, Unger said.

“We never pursue any [IT projects] unless there’s a significant return,” she said.

DaimlerChrysler is also running a pilot program with the software at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany that’s being retrofitted, Unger said. She added that the company previously implemented “a degree” of digital manufacturing planning in construction projects at two other plants in Germany and a Jeep assembly facility in Toledo, Ohio, as precursors to Digital Factory.

The possible investment range cited by Unger would cover the cost of software licenses, hardware and implementation work if DaimlerChrysler goes forward and licenses the Delmia software on a worldwide basis, a company spokeswoman said.

Wolf-Peter Seuffert, an IT manager who is heading the digital manufacturing pilot project at Mercedes-Benz, said via e-mail that the Delmia tools previously hadn’t been used in application environments as complex as those in the automotive industry.

But, Seuffert said, DaimlerChrysler officials “are 100 per cent sure and confident” that the software is scalable enough to meet the company’s needs, which include managing 500,000 production-related data records for its Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars alone.

The Digital Factory strategy is similar to design automation efforts that are being undertaken by other major automakers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., said Jack Maynard, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

“They’re all trying to do a lot more in working on designs in electronic form, where it’s cheaper to make changes, before they start bending metal,” Maynard said. He added that Unger’s eight to nine-figure project investment estimate is similar to what other major automakers are spending on their initiatives. “It’s expensive to do, but it works out to be little on a dollar-per-car basis,” said Maynard, who estimated that the use of these simulation and engineering tools can help pare production cycles “by 20 per cent to 30 per cent.”

Unger said that DaimlerChrysler also expects Digital Factory to produce improvements in vehicle quality and production workflows. For example, the virtual manufacturing tools should help production engineers determine before manufacturing starts whether a specific part will fit into a vehicle as planned, Unger said. That could minimize the need for expensive rework once manufacturing has begun, she noted.

In addition to its Digital Factory, DaimlerChrysler also recently replaced a Unix-based supercomputer used for advanced vehicle design with a cluster of 108 IBM Corp./Intel Corp.-based workstations running Red Hat Inc. software. Under this effort, which was launched last year, the Linux computer grid has generated a 20 per cent performance improvement compared with the supercomputer at 40 per cent less cost, said Unger.

“In this brutally competitive market, we’re not going to be able to discount our way to profitability,” said Bernard I. Robertson, senior vice president of engineering technologies and regulatory affairs at DaimlerChrysler. “We’ll need creativity and innovation.”