Local Firms In Automotive Leap
If successful, the companies involved expect to save $3.5 billion in lower body assembly costs, while also getting a technological jump on
Autodie International and Riviera Tool Corp. are involved in the project with Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. and NIST's Advanced Technology Program (ATP).
Also involved are Wayne State University, Perceptron Inc.,
Originally estimated at $10.8 million with a federal contribution of nearly $5.3 million, this Digital Body Development System (DBDS) would enable virtual implementation of functional build through the integration of a dimensional and finite element simulation with an agent-based support system.
In essence, DBDS is intended to simulate newly designed automobiles and their assembly processes and — with the aid of artificial intelligence technology — allow engineers and designers to identify and solve problems before any assembly occurs.
DBDS was the brainchild of the Auto Body Consortium, now part of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). CAR submitted the original proposal to NIST in July of 2002, with an alignment of automobile and tool manufacturers, software developers and academia already in place.
The development started late last year.
Locally, the first prototype — involving a car door and aperture — was unveiled last month to the participating companies. The group has already filed several patent applications at this early stage in the development process that will conclude in the fall of 2007.
"It's already proving very promising," Riviera CEO Kenneth Rieth said. "I think we're moving in the right direction to be competitive globally."
With its president and director of the manufacturing systems group, Jay Baron, holding a Ph.D. in functional builds, CAR has long been focused on forwarding functional build applications. The group's research with General Motors dates back 10 years.
DBDS, according to assistant director of manufacturing systems, Richard Gerth, is an extension of that — "an extension into virtual functional build," he said, "where you scan body parts and assemble them virtually instead of taking physical parts and assembling them physically."
While many companies are working on simulation tools, DBDS is unique in that it would be able to evaluate output from the assembly model and identify potential solutions from a database of past solutions.
Then it would apply those solutions, evaluate the outcome, provide further necessary modifications, and so on until either a solution is found or it decides an engineer must design a novel solution.
"The tough part is taking the experience and knowledge from past vehicle launches and having to apply them to a current vehicle launch that could be quite different," Gerth explained.
"The vehicle architecture might be different, the parts you had and the problems you saw might not currently exist — yet the same solution might be applicable."
He said the Altarum Institute is developing intelligence agents that should be able to solve that problem.
"The goal is to shorten the build process for an automobile from design to rollout," said Chris Chardoul, the Autodie quality engineer overseeing his company's portion of DBDS.
Autodie is performing studies that will shed some light on the die tryout solving process. "Our die makers are extremely talented craftsmen," Chardoul said, "craftsmen to the 'T,' and these men on our floor have knowledge that, to date, has not been captured in any computer system.
"What we're trying to do is quantitate that tacit knowledge, help develop a database system so that they can track the ways that we go about solving our die issues."
Besides shortening design and build processes, DBDS would also allow for cost reduction decisions that optimize the whole program — something that the industry currently lacks.
The ATP granted funding for the project because the technology is high-risk, challenging and expensive to develop, and not commercially viable during development. According to the ATP project brief, if successful, the joint venture members' investment of just over $5 million would equate to an estimated $3.5 billion in lower body assembly cost savings over the course of six years. Implementation also would provide increased revenue to the automotive supply chain, and produce thousands of new jobs.
Possible other benefits include increased model variety and vehicle quality, increased industry knowledge, and a problem-solving process for sheet metal stampings and assemblies that will transfer to other industries from aerospace to durable goods.
"We believe on a percentage basis that once software is developed and fully robust, there should be a 15 to 20 percent drop across our total cost structure," Rieth said. "We won't be making idle moves anymore that don't add any value."
Unigraphics, a subsidiary of Troy-based EDS, will commercialize the software.
One current drawback of the project is that to date, neither of the partner automakers —Ford or GM — has committed a major assembly or a full car to the program. Such a commitment by one or the other will be necessary to fully test the software.
This collaborative initiative is one of several now occurring within the tool-and-die industry in partnership with CAR, all to create better efficiencies in order to remain competitive against global threats.
"It's interesting how an industry that has been highly fragmented and very competitive, very independent in nature, has been able to quickly come together and be able to make some very significant improvements to the industry as a whole," Rieth said.