Can humans manage the new technology deluge?
DETROIT -- Massive computing power and advanced graphics have revolutionized video games. Now they're doing the same to the auto industry.
Engineers and designers are using computers to create and test new parts and vehicle technology at astonishing speeds.
For instance, in just eight months a team of Ford Motor Co. engineers redesigned a major portion of the 2012 Mustang's 5.0-liter V-8, the "top end" or valvetrain, intake and exhaust manifolds and cylinder heads. A decade ago, the job required about two and a half years, the company says.
Suppliers and automakers, using computer data, can create, test and improve parts before a physical prototype is built. In some cases, parts are tested so thoroughly in the computer that engineers skip prototypes and early tooling and go directly to production tooling.
"Ten years ago, we would spend a year with three to four designers laying out the block and the head, and now we spend two to three months, with one designer doing the block and one doing the head," says Jagadish Sorab, a technical leader in engine development for Ford.
What does today's fast pace mean to the final product, the finished auto in showrooms?
Experts say faster development times enable automakers to load more equipment and advanced features into autos at reasonable prices. Time is money, and computers cut both.
Computers are "responsible for improved quality, for more of the features that consumers demand in their vehicle, and the better fit-and-finish on vehicles today," says Bob Sheaves, a former Chrysler engineer and now a Detroit-area consultant.
Take the 2013 Dodge Dart, due in showrooms this quarter. Here's a sampling of features on the Dart that were absent from the vehicle it replaced on the assembly line, the Dodge Caliber: a 7-inch customizable display for the instrument cluster, active grille shutters for increased fuel efficiency, a redesigned 2.0 inline-four engine, in-seat storage, a backup camera and an 8.4-inch infotainment screen.
Despite the list of new advanced features, the Dart's base sticker is an affordable $16,790, including destination.
Moreover, the accelerating speed of product innovation is prompting some automakers, such as Chrysler Group, to find faster ways to judge suppliers' ideas and give them "yes" or "no" answers within two months.
For suppliers, today's computer wizardry puts a premium on speedy innovation. If a supplier doesn't rush a new idea to an automaker, a competitor will.
Magna Mirrors, for instance, developed a touch-screen rearview mirror that for the first time dropped the bulky plastic housing. The whole development-to-market process took 18 months -- half the time that would have been needed a few years ago.
Methode Electronics delivered the sensor switch that made MyFord Touch possible in 20 months -- a year faster than what it said would have been typical for a similar job.
Magna Mirrors' Infinity mirror and Methode's switch are finalists for the Automotive News 2012 PACE Awards, which honor supplier innovation. Winners will be announced tonight, April 23, in Detroit.
Computer-aided design, commonly called CAD, has been widely used in the automotive industry since the 1980s, when it first augmented and quickly replaced manual drafting done with pencils and protractors.
But unlike pencils and protractors, the computer power of hardware and software for engineering, testing and development has expanded exponentially, especially in recent years.
Engineers today can digitally design components in three dimensions, see and test how they will -- or won't -- work, and make adjustments to improve their designs, all without leaving a computer screen. They also can see how their design will interact with other components on the vehicle.
Thus, suppliers and automakers can skip many time-consuming physical prototypes.
"It's a lot easier to cut electrons than it is to cut steel," says consultant Sheaves.
And when engineers are finished, their digital designs can be sent to production machinery to create parts with outstanding accuracy, cutting more time and money.
Magna Mirrors' Infinity mirror debuting this year in the 2013 Subaru BRZ and later in the 2013 SRT Viper is a prime example of accelerating product development.
Magna Mirrors' engineering center near Grand Rapids, Mich., devised a new way to grind and polish the rearview mirror that made the outer layer of glass particularly strong. In fact, it was so strong that the mirror didn't need a plastic housing, called a bezel. The first-ever bezel-free mirror is also a touch screen, allowing driver control buttons, such as those for General Motors' OnStar system, to be incorporated into the glass.
Magna Mirrors spent a year and a half developing and then delivering the Infinity mirror -- half the time required just a few years ago for the equivalent project.
"The one premise we run our group on is that we use [computer-aided engineering] tools from the very beginning of the process," says David O'Connell, the supplier's vice president of engineering. "We know in good confidence how the mirror is going to perform before we ever try to make a physical part."
During that period, Magna Mirrors was able to automate the mirror's performance testing -- determining its field of view from different angles -- saving weeks of computing time. The company also was able to skip construction of prototype tooling, going straight from its computer model to production tooling, saving weeks or months more, says Keith Foote, the company's chief engineer for advanced product development.
"When we show a customer a new technology, the question is 'When can I have it, and how much?' Typically now, it's the next model year," Foote says.
Tom Beshke, director of business development for Methode Electronics, says his company was able to skip prototype tooling for the touch screen used in the 2012 Ford Edge and Explorer and Lincoln MKX.
"Because of the level of confidence we had that the tooling was correct as it was designed," he says, "we were able to go straight to production tools," saving months from the development process.
Ford engineers employed similar computer mastery to develop the 5.0-liter V-8 engine for the 2012 Mustang and F-150 pickup.
The valvetrain, intake and exhaust manifolds and cylinder heads were designed digitally. For the top-end engineering team, it took eight months from management's go-ahead to final design that was ready to order production tooling.
"We're able to refresh our products much faster, able to deliver new and more efficient products with much faster turnaround times," Ford's Sorab says. "We can have a full concept in three months, and in the three months, we're running 45 or 50 simulations of the whole [engine], whereas before we would run two or three simulations."
To understand how much computer power is at the fingertips of today's engineers, consultant Sheaves offers a computer-game comparison. Previously, auto engineers were operating the equivalent of the PAC-MAN arcade video game, he says. Now they are operating the equivalent of multiplayer, three-dimensional, interactive war games on the Internet.
With this power, engineers can design parts and manufacture tooling that are exceptionally accurate. In fact, Sheaves says, for the first time since digital engineering and design software were developed 30 years ago, "it is now possible to create an exact representation of the design engineer's intent."
Scott Margason, director of product planning for Hyundai Motor America, says innovations now often travel in groups -- the hardware to run one system also can be used to offer consumers another feature with just added software.
"If you already have rearview video, you have everything [sensors and other hardware] you need for lane-departure systems," he says.
Innovation is now fueling itself to an unprecedented degree. Given the exponential advances already made since computer-aided programs first appeared, the pace is likely to quicken.
Suppliers and automakers are already adjusting to the ever-quickening reality, changing the speed at which they handle new ideas, as Chrysler has done.
And since computers will certainly advance further, the question is: Can humans keep up?
You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at email@example.com.