Automakers trade 'mules' for computers
The advanced computer design brings cars to market faster and cheaper.
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News;Toyota
Kevin Power speaks about virtual design software at the Ford Product Development Center in Dearborn.
For decades, automotive engineers had one place to test the vehicles they designed -- where the rubber meets the road.
But software capability is advancing so rapidly that the time-honored practice of building prototype vehicles -- "mules" in auto industry jargon -- to test safety equipment, manufacturing tools, and aerodynamics is fading fast.
Super-powerful computers can now simulate vehicle appearance, functions and performance so well that engineers send few if any prototypes to the wind tunnel, proving grounds or crash test lab.
It's a sea change that has the potential to save millions and bring vehicles to the market faster in the highly competitive auto industry. A single prototype vehicle can cost up to $500,000 and as many as 60 prototypes have been used to develop new models.
"The cost savings to go digitally are enormous," said Phil Martens, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president of North America product creation. "It reduces the complexity of having to worry about building the prototype in the first place."
One in three vehicles on the market today is designed with minimal use of prototypes. And in five years, the number will be closer to two-thirds. And in designing the 2005 Toyota Avalon, the Japanese automaker said it used no prototypes at all.
The test mules are crude versions of the final sedan, minivan or pickup consumers eventually drive off the dealer lot. They are purposely unrefined so engineers can tweak everything from brakes to steering to the shape of sheet metal before designs are completed.
Even the expensive tooling used to build prototypes has become expendable. Auto companies have historically used such tooling to produce just a few prototypes, some of which will be destroyed in crash tests.
Eventually, automakers hope to go straight from the computer screen to "hard" tools -- the dies and molds that spit out the thousands of parts necessary for vehicle production.
The new computer-aided reality means engineers must become more confident of their designs because they won't have the safety net of testing prototypes in real-world tests.
"It's a risk proposition," said Lori Queen, small car vehicle line executive for General Motors Corp. "It might cost you a million dollars to tool a prototype headlamp."
DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group helped pioneer digital engineering in the early 1990s with the Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde, predecessors to the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300C.
This year, showrooms will be flooded with vehicles that were developed with just a handful of prototypes -- or none at all.
The 2006 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky roadsters will be GM's first models to go from final design directly into production on the plant floor using "hard tools."
Ford's upcoming trio of midsize cars -- the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr -- will also make the leap from computer screen to plant without prototypes. Toyota, recognized as the automaker with the fastest product development cycle, just marked another digital engineering milestone. The 2005 Avalon sedan became the first Toyota vehicle designed and built in North America that did not require prototypes.
Even for Toyota, it was a major leap in productivity. To develop the 2002 Camry sedan, Toyota used 60 prototypes while the current Solara coupe evolved with fewer than 20.
"From a timing standpoint, we achieved our shortest lead time -- which was 18 months -- from the final styling to time of production," said Randy Stephens, Avalon program manager.
Two software companies are leading the shift away from prototypes -- France's Dassault Systems and Plano, Texas-based UGS. Their software -- Dassault's CATIA and UGS' NX -- now dominate the industry's migration to digital engineering and design.
In addition to product development, the software is changing workplace dynamics. Stylists and engineers have long clashed over engineering requirements and ideas.
But virtual design tools allow both sides to see the errors of their ways.
"Geometry is truth," said Kevin Power, a Ford software specialist who helped digitally engineer the new Fusion sedan. "It's not an emotional thing anymore."
For an automaker, investing in the software packages can carry a price tag of $100 million. The rapid shift to digital engineering is also requiring major automotive suppliers to invest in new software, creating more challenges for auto-parts makers being asked to work more closely with automakers. "It's the price of poker," Magna International Inc. President Mark Hogan said.
For retired engineers such as Bill Turck, the expedited product development process appears to be a gamble. Retired after nearly 51 years at Ford, the 83-year-old engineer remembers when colored pencils were primary tools of the trade.
"Bypassing all this stuff, you have to be sure you're right," Turck said.
Even with the advent of digital engineering, the need for real-world testing won't stop any time soon. Automakers must still use prototypes to meet federal emissions, crash and safety standards.
"When we say 'zero-prototype,' it's more of a visionary statement than a reality," Martens said. "You do need, still, to have certification prototypes."
And Bernard Charles, president and CEO of Dassault, acknowledges the most sophisticated software can't supplant the first experience behind the wheel.
"Of course you will drive the car," Charles said. "Drive it, feel it, do crazy things on the track -- of course we want to do that. But the idea is, you want that car to be the one you want to sell."
"Geometry is truth. It's not an emotional thing anymore." "It reduces the complexity of having to worry about building the prototype in the first place."