Tecnomatix Technologies Ltd. calls it the Digital Factory. Using virtual reality software, engineers now can plan, simulate and tweak the design of a production line, right down to the smallest detail. That can take months off the launch of a plant.
In recent years, Tecnomatix has steadily increased its product offerings in the Digital Factory realm, either by developing the tools itself or by scooping up smaller companies through acquisition.
But traditions die hard in the auto industry. Many still prefer the tried and true - and perhaps slower - approach of building prototype lines. Eli Dahan, marketing director for Tecnomatix North American operations in Novi, Mich., spoke recently with Staff Reporter John Couretas. Edited excerpts follow.
What are manufacturing managers looking for when they come to Tecnomatix?
No. 1 is cost reduction. And they have a huge need to reduce the cycle time for product and manufacturing development. They have already squeezed the cycle for product design. The next wave is to reduce dramatically the time it takes to engineer the manufacturing base.
Your new Process Planner product gives the user a top-down view of the factory planning routine. How will it be used?
You only have to describe your process electronically and capture it into a shared database. And you can exchange it with all the people in your enterprise, should they be in manufacturing engineering, logistics, body assembly, ergonomics, stamping. You bring in the product people because they are designing the parts and you would like to make a change in those parts so that the process would be easier.
Where does the production engineering, or factory planning, process often run into trouble?
Let's take the ramp-up phase, which is the last and most painful phase of the production process. That's when the line has been built, the prototype parts are being pushed off the stamping line and the body line is starting to assemble parts. And nothing works. Or something crashes and you don't know why. Maybe the fixture is not holding the part well or the welding gun is colliding with a fixture next to it.
And the launch date is fast approaching.
In the past, this took six or eight months to work out. This is now reduced to two to six weeks because of virtual technology. That's what we experienced with Ford, BMW and Fiat. Using our software to validate the process design, they were able to cut down the ramp-up phase by almost 80 percent.
Who is closest to building assembly lines using only an electronic mock-up?
The Europeans. BMW, Fiat and Renault are extremely advanced in that area. Rover did a complete sign-off on their final assembly line on one of our products. They saved millions of dollars.
How much progress have automakers made in reducing the product development cycle from design freeze to launch? We're talking months now instead of years, right?
They are down to about three years. Automakers now have a goal that in two or three years they will be at 24 months. Toyota, one of the best, has set a goal of 18 months.
When will Toyota get there?
In the next three to five years, using this virtual technology.
Who is actually closest to designing an 18-month car?
In my opinion, the Europeans. The Japanese are still doing a lot of very extensive, continuous improvement. But they are not necessarily doing virtual mock-up. They have very clear processes, dedicated people, and their production systems are amazing. You can imagine that when they implement the virtual factory fully, they will be very dangerous.
If your technology is so great, why isn't everyone depending on it today?
They still want to see a physical line at work and sign off on the physical prototype. This won't be possible in two to five years because the Japanese are going to make a car in 18 months.
There are still a lot of skeptics.
They fear the computer. Those people in manufacturing, they are not like the young guys in product design who are very computer-literate. Manufacturing people have a huge amount of experience because they have done so many cars. They think that no software in the world will be able to do what they can do.
Assembly plants today are still pretty inflexible. Will virtual technology help the industry move to a more flexible state that will allow build-to-order production?
You have to design machines for 10 different operations instead of two. It's much more complex. Today, it's impossible to check so many variants on the physical lines. Too many combinations.
The Japanese have come to a point where they can run eight models of a car on the same line. U.S. manufacturers are getting to two, three or four models. In Japan, they have modeled a telescope robot that can adapt itself to eight different models of cars. It's on a body assembly line at Nissan. It's amazing.