by Matt Villano

Manufacturing: Integrating IT with Automotive Engineering

Feb 15, 200114 mins
Collaboration SoftwareSmall and Medium Business

Reader ROI

* Learn how product development in the automotive industry is changing

* Understand how integrating IT and engineering could save your company money

* Consider whether a systems approach would benefit your business

ON AN UNCOMMONLY SUNNY DAY in Rochester, Mich., Patrick E. Dessert is lying on his back, tinkering with the electrical system of a white Jeep Cherokee. A wire runs from beneath the truck’s hood and snakes across the floor in front of him, the other end sticking into the back of a beat-up CPU. On a computer screen nearby, a webpage invites users to click buttons that will send commands to the vehicle’s electrical system, starting the ignition and turning it off, turning the lights on and off, or setting the lights to flash

repeatedly. Dessert encourages visitors to oblige, and when someone does, he smiles and shakes his head in glee. “Like that, like that,” he shouts, his eyes sparkling. “Isn’t this neat?”

This is Dessert’s playground, a place where experts say the future of automotive technology could be born during the next few years. As director of Oakland University’s 3-year-old Product Development and Manufacturing (PDM) Center, Dessert oversees a number of projects that eventually will streamline the electrical systems of cars, transforming vehicles into roving Web browsers with the capacity to interactively circumvent mechanical problems and automatically schedule appointments at the shop. These R&D projects combine IT with engineering, product planning and computer science in a way that no other efforts in the automotive industry ever have.

Ask manufacturing experts about efficiency, and few, if any, will say that automotive companies are headed in the right direction. For years, the auto industry has distanced engineering from IT by building cars without linking these departments. Rarely do companies incorporate forecasting data or information about previous warranty claims into the plans for a new car, for example. Cast in such a supporting role, IT has taken the proverbial backseat. The result, notes Kevin Prouty, research director of automotive strategy for AMR Research in Boston, has been massive losses in rebates for unsold cars and costs for repairs under warranty. Last year alone, automobile manufacturers doled out $24 billion in rebates to unload more than 5 billion unsold cars. These outlays could be avoided by integrating feedback on what’s not selling and what’s not working into the design and manufacturing process.

The PDM Center is out to turn these trends upside down. By coordinating IT with electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering in a broader and more organic approach, carmakers can improve efficiency across the board. But rather than trying to combine data streams from individual segments of auto manufacturing, the center promotes a tactical inclusion of IT in the planning process from the start, encouraging the managers of tomorrow to eliminate departmental distinctions and integrate technology throughout the manufacturing cycle.

In many other industries, these kinds of interdisciplinary programs would be interesting but not extraordinary. But in the automotive industry, a market valued at more than $900 billion, such sweeping process integration efforts are downright revolutionary. Since automotive manufacturing burst onto the U.S. economic scene more than 100 years ago, managers have kept data from critical departments separate; they’ve been relying on engineering for innovations and on IT to patch problems as they arise. Only now, after industry executives have grown tired of losing billions in avoidable inefficiencies every year, do experts say things might change.

“These companies want to revamp the entire process of making cars, integrate IT throughout and improve the overall flow of information,” says Prouty. “Well, they know they’re not going to wake up one morning and find their problems solved. In order to cut their losses, these companies need to reengineer the entire process. They’re turning to the PDM Center to show them how.”

Systems Curriculum

“No problem in the automotive industry is solely logistical, solely technical or solely organizational,” insists Dessert, who has a PhD in systems engineering and has researched artificial intelligence systems. “For years, we in this industry have pigeonholed our approach to solving problems: IT does this, engineering does this and so on. We needed to find something better.”

That something has come in the form of a curriculum based on systems engineering. Students at the PDM Center learn to view car manufacturing as a system rather than separate, disconnected steps in an assembly line, using customer satisfaction as the metric by which adjustments to the system should be made. By reorganizing the design process around the customer’s voice, Dessert says, manufacturers can cut repair costs, sell surplus cars better and substantially reduce overall costs.

In classes, seminars and daylong workshops, the center’s faculty members show students how a small investment in redistributing resources can improve efficiency in ways that shop managers had never dreamed. Lecturers stress the importance of recording and integrating process control data with an eye toward optimizing manufacturing processes. Then, in the lab, students can watch the fruits of their learning unfold, as Steeplechase Software’s Visual Logic Controller software runs a model shop-floor assembly line that puts marbles and washers onto wood blocks resembling cars.

Learning experiences like these are designed not only for Oakland University graduate and undergraduate students, but also for employees of manufacturers that partner with the center; an extensive continuing education program is available at night. These are the students who can make an immediate impact on the industry; already, two teams of students from DaimlerChrysler Corp. have turned classroom principles into results, says Fred Miesterfeld, advance technology specialist of electronic systems at DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. Last year, employees from a nearby bumper factory saved 40 percent in manufacturing costs after reorganizing the flow of information on the shop floor. More recently, employees from another DaimlerChrysler plant, in Sterling, Mich., used concepts from the PDM Center classes to eliminate redundancies on their busiest factory line and reduce inventory costs by more than $600,000.

“The fact that these principles saved us money is proof that [the PDM Center] is headed down the right path,” Miesterfeld says. “I don’t see any other organization developing new concepts and relating them to the current and future employees of this industry like it does. It combines textbook knowledge with experience learning and philosophy. I don’t think you can get much better than that.”

Indeed, few industry experts argue the effectiveness of the PDM Center’s methods, but some have wondered how innovative the organization’s curriculum really is. Prouty, the research director for AMR, says many of the center’s basic messages are common sense, and he describes the concept of organic process realignment as “good but fairly straightforward.” Richard Kraniak, regional manager of Columbia, S.C.-based Integrated Business Systems & Services (IBSS), echoes these sentiments, saying that while he thinks the center is “terrific,” most of the tenets it promotes are philosophies that have “circulated for quite some time” elsewhere.

From his seventh-floor office atop Oakland’s science and engineering building, Dessert catches wind of these comments?and surprisingly agrees. He acknowledges that what he teaches isn’t rocket science, and yet, “you’d be amazed how many people say, ’Oh, yeah!’ when we tell them they can do a better job of incorporating IT,” he says. “People in this industry have never thought of the kind of stuff we’re trying to get them to think about. Sometimes, everyone can use a good dose of common sense.”

Next-Generation Research

Ah, common sense. Since he founded the center in 1997, Dessert has worked with other Oakland University researchers to use systems engineering principles to develop specific, IT-oriented improvements for auto manufacturing. The first of these research projects is an effort to accelerate the process of custom order fulfillment, an area that for years has held consumers hostage by making them wait for certain preference combinations. All silver Volkswagen Beetles, for instance, come standard with black vinyl upholstery. A customer wanting black vinyl can probably get the car within 24 hours. If a customer wants black leather, however, she has to wait for a factory to run a special order, a process that now takes two to three months.

With the increasing popularity of buying cars online, Dessert believes that custom orders can and should be fulfilled more quickly, and he has launched a rapid order fulfillment project to find out how. During the next few weeks, he says, center researchers will take a look at the systems that process custom orders, the technology plant managers use to decide what to build and how these preference combinations are established in the first place. When they’re done, the researchers hope to figure out how a reorganization and perhaps some new enterprise resource planning solutions can streamline the order fulfillment process and enable customers to get customized cars in five days or less.

Another ongoing project is an attempt to cut down the number of warranty claims that the auto industry deals with every year. The PDM Center has developed an artificial intelligence tool to provide accurate estimations of design and warranty details up front, during the design phase of new cars. Written in standard C++ and dubbed Warranty Advisor, the program serves as a memory-resident data structure and interfaces with computer-aided design programs, enabling engineers to immediately plot the conformance of a particular design. If, for instance, an engineer sketches a vehicle with an extreme tow angle (the angle at which a car can tow something else), the program will compare the dimensions with a repository of previous warranty data, then call attention to the mistake. Because few manufacturers have programs like this, the application could save both time and money for the industry at large.

“When you think about how an application like that could change engineering, it’s unbelievable,” says Kraniak, the regional manager at IBSS. “Engineers do most of their designing solo, without the intervention or assistance of anyone else in a particular company. To incorporate IT to use technology to integrate data and other valuable information could change the automotive industry forever.”

Prouty agrees. “The prospect of artificial intelligence is an attractive one,” he says. “Even-tually, it could eliminate quite a number of the inefficiencies in the [automotive] industry, from planning and design to sales and maintenance. People say it will revolutionize things, and it certainly has the capacity to do that. The question on everyone’s mind is, When?”

DaimlerChrysler’s Miester-feld anticipates a version of this new technology arriving in his shop soon. As a partner of the center, DaimlerChrysler will be able to test Warranty Advisor for free by the end of the year. Dessert says he’s considering requests from other auto manufacturers that are also interested in using the application. Eventually, center researchers plan to develop this technology into a commercial tool and sell it to companies across the industry. Dessert is considering launching his own for-profit company to market the application to companies in other manufacturing industries as well, such as aircraft makers and defense contractors.

Between now and then, the PDM Center’s top priority is the Next Generation Electrical Architecture (NGEA) project, which was launched last year with a $5 million public/private grant from six of the center’s industrial partners and the U.S. Army’s National Automotive Center in nearby Warren, Mich. An effort to develop a vehicle with an interactive, Internet-ready electrical system that rivals KITT from the 1980s TV show Knight Rider, this is the project that inspires Dessert to crawl beneath the Jeep Cherokee. Rather than dozens of embedded electrical systems for every little feature, cars with the NGEA will have one voice-operated electrical system that runs everything?windows, odometer, stereo, lights, you name it. A big advantage of the single system is that, instead of having customers wait months for a CD player or a global positioning system, dealers can swap features in and out at the point of purchase, expediting the process and cutting back-end costs at the factory.

“In addition to being downright cool, this is the ultimate attempt to make the industry more efficient,” Dessert says. “Customers have been asking for this kind of technology for years, but because IT and engineering couldn’t get their acts together, it never materialized. Finally, through this project, we’re making interdisciplinary cooperation a reality.”

At the heart of the NGEA is the ability of one electrical function to take over another. For instance, if a driver spills coffee on the power-window controls and short-circuits them, he can reroute that command to another lever?say, the rearview mirror controls or the volume knob on the stereo. The system will also establish constant communication with servers back at the dealer’s maintenance shop, so factory-certified mechanics can set up diagnostic software to keep tabs on the vehicle at all times. This could prevent many of the problems related to neglect; if the software identifies subpar performance, it could command the car to fix itself or automatically schedule an appointment for onsite inspection.

In the private sector, Miesterfeld and others expect the NGEA to cut at least $12 million from automakers’ product development budgets each year, at no additional cost to the customer. In the public sector, military officials predict that the technology will enhance vehicle intelligence, enabling them to determine who’s driving what vehicles when and where certain vehicles are at all times. The military portion of the NGEA project composes the U.S. military’s entire foray into systems engineering (see “GPS Jeeps, Next-Gen GIs,” Page 122). Its lab rat? A beat-up Humvee, donated by the Army.

The Road Ahead

Most of the time the Humvee is parked beside the white Jeep in a garage at Oakland University’s main campus. Some days, when he’s itching to let off steam, Dessert climbs in and takes it for a bumpy ride around a nearby golf course. Usually, though, he just tinkers, adding wires to one vehicle and yanking wires from the other. These two vehicles are currently the only trucks on which PDM Center team members can test their latest advances with the NGEA. By October 2001, however, the two vehicles will be two of many; Dessert plans to have a fleet of 50 vehicles collecting and transmitting data from all over the Detroit area.

This is only the first of a number of big plans. In the center’s classrooms, students can look forward to newer, more sophisticated strategies for reorganizing process improvements and the ability to put these strategies into action with virtual-reality factories, later this spring. On a larger scale, university officials confirm that plans are in the works for an entirely new building for the PDM Center: a massive, $5 million structure where researchers can sponsor symposiums and greatly enlarge their course offerings, which now number four. The new building, slotted to go up on the southwest corner of the campus, will include 12 new classrooms, a full-size assembly line, a virtual-reality shop floor and a test track for vehicles sporting new technology. Though the plans are not definite, Dessert is optimistic and says the facility could be completed as early as 2003.

Yet with all of these exciting changes down the road, experts and partners are wary of jumping aboard the PDM Center bandwagon all at once. Changing the culture of the auto industry takes time, they say. Miesterfeld, a partner from the beginning, likens the process to getting a flabby body in shape: Just as the soft spots in the industry took dozens of years to develop, so too will these new regimens need time to become ways of life. Dessert himself is realistic: “This isn’t going to happen overnight,” he says. “Ironically, until cars hit the road, few things in the automotive field happen very fast.”