The auto industry is in full agreement that anything that allows engineers to speed up a product development project is a good thing. To do that, the industry has put most of its bets on one horse: computer modeling.
But the question that remains is, how do you speed up the process of creating computer-modeling tools that actually do what automakers want them to?
One answer comes from MathWorks Inc., a Natick, Mass., supplier of computer systems for automotive clients. MathWorks attacked the problem by bringing its customers together in one big room and simply asking them the question: 'What should this thing do for you?'
'I believe this approach works very well,' says John Mills, software engineering manager for Motorola AIEG, the automotive unit of the U.S. electronics giant. 'I like the idea of having my voice heard on the product I'm buying. We've found it be very constructive.'
Mills and another 40 or 50 of MathWorks' auto industry clients participate in what they call the MathWorks Automotive Advisory Board. The board meets once or twice a year, representing the supplier's biggest customers. For two or three days, the board members put aside their competitive resistance to each other long enough to direct MathWorks' next generation of computer tools.
The process is a curious sight. MathWorks' customers cut a wide swath across the auto industry, including General Motors, Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler, Toyota Motor Corp. and many of the industry's biggest suppliers. Those companies typically are protective of their information technologies and are reluctant to open them up to the world's supplier base.
But that competitive posture gets checked at the door when it comes to molding their software. Ford and GM engineers swap ideas. DaimlerChrysler and Toyota representatives shape each other's thinking, says John Binder, MathWorks manager of automotive industry marketing.
'It's astonishing to go to one of these meetings and see how they work,' Binder says. 'The people who come in already understand clearly what the product does and how it works. So this isn't a sales effort or a session to get familiar with the product. They come in and are actually able to put aside whatever company they work for in order to collaborate to make their tool work better.'
Computer modeling is rapidly becoming the approach of choice to carry engineers from product drawings to product assembly lines. The technology allows project engineers to do on a computer screen what they used to have to do in the test laboratory. That includes creating virtual three-dimensional models, calculating structural specifications and even running simulated crash tests.
Because computer modeling allows for virtual testing, it reduces the material costs of a development project, as well as the time required to work with the real-world materials. Mills estimates computer modeling can knock a year out of a typical project.
An equally important issue is the amount of human input. Traditionally, math modeling has been done by hand - and that's still the case in some situations. After an engineering design is completed, engineers will sit at a computer terminal and write out the control codes manually. Control codes are the software instructions that tell an electrical device how to execute the function it is designed to do. In the case of an antilock braking system, first the mechanism would be designed, and then an engineer or group of engineers would write the computer codes that make the ABS activate and dictate how it will behave as it activates.
Less manual work
But that function of the auto industry is changing as computer math modeling moves in. On a system such as the one MathWorks markets, the tool creates the control code automatically; the design on the computer screen automatically generates a control code.
Once the design is final, its control code can be copied onto the computer control module installed into the vehicle itself. That means the entire process of calculating and writing codes - and repeating the process for each iteration of design - is eliminated.
'This whole area of automating control design is getting a lot more attention today,' Binder says. 'A big reason is that there's more electronics going into a vehicle - more computer controllers, ABS, GPS. Somebody has to generate all the software that runs it all. You just can't find all the software engineers to do all that code generation any more.
'By automating it, you no longer have to have a middle person trying to capture the engineer's intent on calibration or specification,' he says. 'The other issue is that nobody on a project ever has enough time to calibrate correctly.
'So since you've automated the code-writing part of it, the engineer gets to spend more time calibrating the design.'
For suppliers, accuracy is another benefit, adds Mills of Motorola. 'When the design is ready, the code is already written,' he says. 'That means you can go back to the customer faster with fewer changes.'
This is the industry atmosphere that MathWorks and other modeling system suppliers are dealing with.
At the same time, enormous business changes are going on among the customers themselves. Automakers and their parts suppliers are going through a period in which data sharing and vehicle project participation are drifting through uncharted waters. To design a relevant math modeling computer today, the company must consider questions that would have seemed improbable five years ago:
How many different components will link into one module design?
How many companies will participate in the design?
How much of the control coding will be shared with parts customers?
How much of the control coding will be shared with other parts makers on the project?
Who will be able to change the part calibrations and coding, and who won't?
When the board met in June 1999, its chief requests included an encryption feature. By encrypting the working content on the modeling system, a group of vehicle project participants can declare various parts of their work off limits to other participants. That way they can work together without giving away proprietary technical solutions.
'This way you can build a vehicle or a component in a public forum,' Binder says. 'Based on what the customers asked for, you can now take the blocks of content and encrypt them so that only the person who builds the block knows what's in it. A company like Lear or Denso or Delphi or Visteon can say to the project manager, `Here's my stuff. You know what the inputs and outputs are, but only I know what's there in the black box in the middle.' So it protects the intellectual property of the supplier or the automaker.'
The board also asked MathWorks to retain design iterations as a project progresses. That way, a supplier can go back and look at a version of his design before it was altered.
Both of those 1999 recommendations influenced the modeling system the company released late last year.
Meanwhile, the advisory board met again in June 2000 in Novi, Mich. The company considered the site roughly equidistant from three of the board's biggest customers, Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler.
First the group participated in a symposium on modeling technology in general. When that was over, the board again settled in for an idea session with MathWorks' research and development staff.
The conclusions reached at that meeting, says Binder, will appear on the next version of the company's products.