With the aid of specialist software from Dassault Systèmes, American Specialty Cars has come up with an innovative open air roof solution that will rejuvenate the SUV market

Aficionados know American Specialty Cars (ASC) as the company that introduced factory-installed sunroofs to the North American market in the 1960s, developer of convertible systems for the Toyota Camry Solara and Mitsubishi Eclipse, and a key contributor to the memorable styling of the Dodge SRT-4, Viper and Chrysler Group SRT-8 models.

The company defines its mission as “Bringing new cars to life. Adding new life to cars.” The positioning reflects ASC’s growing role in helping OEMs differentiate their products in a market where the number of global vehicle makers has escalated and sales volumes have stagnated as consumers grew bored with the similarities among major brands.

ASC’s latest innovation, an open-air roof system for minivans and sport utility vehicles called InfiniVu, offers the potential to rejuvenate the segment, which has been hard hit by soaring fuel prices and a lack of styling innovation. The InfiniVu, which ASC describes as a “sunvertible,” invariably prompts people who see it for the first time to delightedly exclaim ‘wow!’”

The product’s impact is so strong, in fact, that vehicle makers are clamouring to be among the first to offer this innovation to the market.

Fortunately, ASC’s investment in V5 Product Lifecycle Management (V5 PLM) solutions from Dassault Systèmes allows the design work required to customise the system to a particular model to be completed in record time, with quality that escalates in each new version and at costs well below the value consumers ascribe to the product.

Design agility accommodates a soaring market opportunity

“We believe InfiniVu is going to grow geometrically, so the fact that we can use V5 PLM to take the basic design and quickly morph it into all the different applications we foresee is critical,” said Chris Theodore, ASC’s vice chairman. “We have half a dozen projects at the moment, with our first production unit hitting the market this summer. Instead of designing the product from scratch, we capture our knowledge and build on it, which allows us to meet our customers’ need for speed, contributes to continuous quality improvement and keeps the cost below what you would expect for an option like this.”

The InfiniVu is available in a fabric version, which opens accordion-style from back to front, front to back, or in various combinations. This allows users to open any part of the roof or to protect certain passengers from the elements – children sitting in the back seat, for example. It also comes in a style made of glass or Lexan panels, which slide and stack on top of one another to accomplish the same effects. “The convertible market in the United States is a very stable market, but it’s exclusively a two-door market,” Theodore observes. “That excludes most of the America population – families, people concerned about safety and those who need hauling capacity. Half the US market now is for non-sedan-type vehicles—SUVs, crossovers, trucks and minivans. Those buyers appreciate the open air without sacrificing utility.”

If even 10 per cent of such buyers choose InfiniVu as an option, ASC will sell more than a million units annually. But the numbers are likely to be much higher: nearly half of all two-door cars sold are convertibles, attesting to the allure of open-air driving. With such large projected demand and vehicle makers hungry for differentiating features, Theodore knew ACS’s announcement of the InfiniVu would bring immediate pressure to produce it – and fast.

The right solution, used the right way

ASC had used CATIA V5 (Dassault Systèmes’ marketleading V5 PLM solution) for years in its basic design work. But ASC hadn’t implemented the features of CATIA V5 that would allow the company to meet the projected InfiniVu demand. “The bad news was that we weren’t using the tool right,” Theodore said. “The good news was that we had the right tool.” ASC brought in experts from Dassault Systèmes to help restructure its CATIA V5 data to take advantage of parametric design capabilities and templates.

Clarifying and documenting the company’s design processes allowed ASC to identify opportunities to streamline processes and eliminate wasted effort, and then to automate those processes using PLM principles.

Once the processes were automated, ASC engineers could enter a few parameters about a specific vehicle model – the roof dimensions and surface characteristics, structural integrity requirements, and positioning of side curtain airbags, for example – and the software would immediately morph the design to meet that vehicle’s specific requirements.

“The first InfiniVu design we did took a year to concept and two years of development,” Theodore said. “Now with just the roof surface data, CATIA V5 can determine the optimum length and width, the shape longitudinally and laterally, clear all the external barriers, and generate the design in a matter of a few hours. The entire process from concept to delivery is down to a year. Now that the OEMs have seen it they all want to know how fast they can have it, so that speed is critical.”

But speed is only one of the benefits ASC derives from V5 PLM. Continuous quality improvement is another, because CATIA V5 “allows you to learn and build upon rather than having to re-learn, which ensures you don’t make the same mistake twice,” Theodore said. With CATIA V5, innovation and quality ramp up is faster because users build on their knowledge with each new design iteration, delivering more benefit to each successive customer.

Accumulated learning and design-in-context also eliminates arbitrary mistakes. Because everyone who works on a design can see not only what has been done but why, eliminating the risk that someone will damage a design by making changes whose impact they don’t fully understand. The benefit that makes all others possible, however, is real-time communication. “Having one set of data that is shared in real time makes information clear and transparent and eliminates a lot of waste,” Theodore said. “We practise lean product creation, so we don’t want to be working on outdated data or the wrong data, and we don’t want to have to catch up on changes after the fact. The ultimate vision for PLM is that if a change is made, everybody knows about it in the next second, along with all of the implications for cost, tooling, and assembly.”

Products are right the first time

ASC has such confidence in the accuracy of CATIA V5’s parametric design capabilities that it finished creating a physical, working mock-up of an InfiniVu system for an important customer review just one day before the presentation. “We could do that because we knew it would be right the first time – and it was,” Theodore said. But ASC has only begun to scratch the surface of what it can do with V5 PLM, and it has aggressive plans to continue building on its early successes. The next step is to move into full knowledge-based engineering (KBE) that captures not only design information, but also analysis, tooling, manufacturing and costing information, among others.

“We want to capture all the knowledge that we have, decisions that our engineers make every day without even realising it, and build those into CATIA V5 as rules,” Theodore said. “Then, as we adapt our design to each new customer’s requirements, we can count on the software to apply the rules so that we get every aspect of the design right the first time. We want to expand that into manufacturing, tools and the rest of the bill in terms of cost and weight, re-analyse all those parameters automatically and keep moving forward.”

When all that work is done for the fabric InfiniVu system, Theodore said, then ASC will be ready to apply the work to its glass—and Lexan-panel versions and build rules that will allow the fabric and solid designs to be interchanged automatically. As the volume of its InfiniVu design data grows, ASC is also reviewing solutions to help it manage that data and the processes that surround it more effectively, including ENOVIA and MatrixOne. ASC ultimately plans to apply its learnings from the InfiniVu product to the rest of its business.