Design Revolution Sweeps the Auto Industry; New technology and computing power allow vehicle makers to conceive and test designs much more quickly—and cheaply

Design Revolution Sweeps the Auto Industry

New technology and computing power allow vehicle makers to conceive and test designs much more quickly—and cheaply

MIKE RAMSEY

Oct. 20, 2013 4:59 p.m. ET

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Altair design software produces ideal shapes for vehicle parts like this motorcyle frame… which designers then modify to account for manufacturing constraints. 

Ford Motor Co. F +0.40% engineer Kevin Tallio holds up a twisty series of loops made of hardened sand and declares that the object—a mold for a new engine part, a cylinder head—was an impossibility not long ago. Mr. Tallio, a senior engine developer at Ford, is taking part in a revolution in vehicle design that has swept the auto industry. Advances in computer-aided engineering and big investments in computing power have given manufacturers new tools to create designs and the ability to test their ideas in a fraction of the time and at far less cost than they could before.

The result: Many more design ideas are being conceived and tested than ever before, and the best are being adopted quickly, helping manufacturers improve the fuel efficiency and the performance of cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles.

“This new process is allowing us to do a lot of innovation,” says Nand Kochhar, executive technical director of computer-aided engineering at Ford.

Fast Track

Car makers are using computers to run through dozens of design possibilities in the time it once took to produce a single prototype.

Only a few years ago, it might have taken as long as eight months to get from the idea for a new cylinder head to the building of a prototype, and it would have cost millions of dollars, Mr. Tallio says.

The time and expense involved in developing new parts discouraged vehicle makers from looking at many daring or innovative designs that could yield small gains in fuel economy, because a failure could be so costly.

Today, the part was created in a computer simulation that came up with the most efficient design possible. Engineers then altered that design to account for manufacturing constraints and tested the revised design virtually in models that used decades of data on material properties and engine performance as a guide. Ford then created the mold to make a real part that could be bolted onto an engine for further testing.

The entire process took days instead of months and cost thousands of dollars instead of millions—savings that make design risks worth taking. “It’s like a parachute for our ideas,” says Mr. Tallio.

It was a parachute for the Ford Explorer in 2010. When Ford was preparing to launch the latest version of the sport-utility vehicle, there was a problem with the brake rotor. Because of its ability to virtually design and test a part and quickly produce a prototype, a new brake rotor was created within a week, and the launch of one of the company’s most important vehicles was saved, company spokesman Jake Dylik says.

A more recent product of the new design process is a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that Ford will introduce in China this year. Designers were able to quickly develop and test a prototype that has the exhaust manifold—which collects exhaust from the engine’s cylinders—built into the engine, instead of being bolted on. That helps make the engine as efficient and powerful as the larger engine it will replace. The smaller engine will allow drivers to avoid an expensive tax penalty on larger engines, but with no sacrifice in performance.

Crunching Data

The U.S. federal mandate for greater fuel efficiency is driving the efforts by vehicle makers to make their design processes more efficient. Recently toughened regulations in the U.S. now require new cars and trucks to have roughly double the fuel efficiency of today’s vehicles by 2025. That is causing manufacturers to invest billions of dollars in various means to cut the weight of their vehicles, make them more aerodynamic and improve the efficiency of their engines.

Since 2000, car makers have been talking about ditching physical prototypes as computer simulations of real-world conditions improved. But the gap between the digital and the actual proved wider than initially thought. Much more data needed to be collected and crunched before parts could be reliably designed and tested digitally.

That process has accelerated in the past four or five years. Decades of data on the costs, performance and safety of various materials and designs have been digitized so they can be weighed by design programs.

Today a vehicle can be built, run through snow banks, started in frozen or hellishly hot conditions and crashed repeatedly—all inside a vast network of computers. “We can install the engine-management software into the computer model and run the engine” to see how it performs with newly designed parts under a wide variety of conditions, says Bob Trecapelli, Ford’s global director of digital innovation development and deployment.

To take advantage of those advances, car makers have made massive investments in computing power.

Ford, for example, has increased its computing power by about 50% every year for at least eight years, says Mr. Kochhar.

In Dearborn, Mich., where Ford is based, there are several multistory buildings stacked floor to ceiling with computers to run the company’s engineering programs around the world. And it doesn’t stop there.

Ford has arrangements with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory—the world’s most powerful computing array—to boost the auto maker’s computing power when huge calculations are required.

Ideal Made Practical

Meanwhile, advanced software is giving auto makers a whole new universe of designs to work with. The software offers up the most efficient design possible, based on massive amounts of data, often creating shapes human engineers would be unlikely to imagine.

Altair Engineering Inc. sells design software to every major auto maker in the world. The software often comes up with elaborate, spindly, asymmetrical designs that then must be modified into something that is more easily manufactured and is compatible with the rest of a vehicle’s design.

That’s where Ford’s expanding computing power comes in. Hau Thai-Tang, the global purchasing chief for Ford, says the company is adding Cray Inc. CRAY +0.09%supercomputers to its array for the purpose of modifying the designs the Altair software suggests—in a hurry. “We can put in a set of constraints, throw it in the Cray overnight, and it will spit out the most efficient solution,” he says.

Mr. Ramsey is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau. He can be reached at michael.ramsey@wsj.com.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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