From months to minutes

Virtual prototyping lets designers cut modeling time

Ten years ago, Paul Stewart never dreamed he would touch a car before producing a clay model. But that was before virtual prototyping.

“We can apply this (process) to a virtual clay sculpting,” said Stewart, a specialist in the Ford Research Lab ( in Dearborn, Mich. “You hang on to the stylus in front of a virtual model of a component and scrape away at a virtual prototype model, just like scraping away at clay.”

Robots allow designers to scrape clay, open tailgates and slam doors on three-dimensional computer models — something Ford calls haptic.

“When we use electronic models, you have the ability for everyone to see the changes simultaneously,” Stewart said. “It makes it more efficient. We’re good at turning a clay model into a math model. The problem is when models exist in different forms, it’s difficult to include everyone in the design process.”

Demand growing

Automakers are embracing virtual prototyping, despite a lack of compatible software. Still, U.S. software spending will grow 19.2 percent to top $1.3 billion this year, estimates Daratech Inc. . By comparison, the market research and technology assessment firm in Cambridge, Mass., says CAD/CAM user spending will rise 9.8 percent to $5.4 billion.

Daratech analyst Bruce Jenkins said more manufacturers are looking to virtual prototyping and simulation to accelerate time to market.

“Auto OEMs are moving to embrace it vigorously,’’ Jenkins said. “GM is quite a proponent of this technology. Ford is doing a lot, too. Suppliers are responsible for components and subsystems. But at the OEMs, refinement of the total product level can happen. Only the OEMs hold all the data.”

From 80 to 20

A decade ago, General Motors built 80 physical prototypes — at about $300,000 each — to validate and test designs for its 1991 Chevrolet Caprice. Today, GM builds about 20 prototypes for cars and trucks, and it does most of its testing on computers.

“We’ve taken the modeling times down from months, to weeks to even hours,” said Steve Rohde, a technical director for GM’s Vehicle Synthesis, Analysis and Simulation Group. “Our computing power had been going up 85 percent a year; it’s 135 percent (up) this year. We’ve also taken hundreds of millions of dollars in costs out of the design process.”

At DaimlerChrysler, computer modeling, simulation and virtual prototyping remain in the early stages, said Tom Moore, vice president of Liberty and Technical Affairs for the Chrysler group (

“If you work in the corner inventing the most perfect steering system but find out it won’t fit in the package of the car, it’s not effective whatsoever,” Moore said.

Looking for compatibility

The downside to using virtual prototyping technology is software incompatibility by different companies.

That’s as it should be, said Todd Vest, a technical director in the simulation department for GM’s design staff.

“Each solves some problems better than the others. Some try to make comprehensive solutions types, other restrict a wide range of problems and have gone for speed and simplicity. I see it to continue to be a set of tools. There is an inherent need for people to have options.”

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