Mike Farish looks at some examples of how CAD systems have become an indispensible part of vehicle manufacturing

Aston Martin Racing (AMR) based in Banbury, Oxfordshire is an autonomous design operation that effectively uses the [Aston Martin] road car designs as a starting point to create heavily modified vehicles for quite different purposes, explains its chief designer Paul Doe.

Indeed, the distinctiveness of the two operations is emphasised by the fact that each company uses different CAD (computer aided design) software for its design work. Aston Martin designs its cars using the Siemens NX 3D modelling system, whereas AMR carries out its work using the Creo software package – formerly known as ProEngineer – from Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) with the aid of a number of other programs, not least PTC’s Windchill product data management (PDM) system. As such the bridge between the NX and Creo systems is a ‘neutral format’ known as STEP, that allows computerised 3D geometry to be ported between different proprietary CAD systems.

Doe says that AMR uses the information it receives to design and build racing cars that fall into three generic categories: GT4 – described by Doe as “close to road car”; GT3 – “an out-and-out race car”; and GTE – an endurance racing vehicle for circuits such as Le Mans and Sebring. Compared with the other two specifications, he says, the demands made on GTE cars mean that they are much more intensively developed, with just about all elements of the original vehicle being changed – one consequence being noticeably greater use of design analysis programs by the AMR design team.

Compared with the resources of a major road car OEM the team is necessarily quite small. For instance, Doe says that AMR has just two specialist designers for chassis work and another two for engines, though in reality there is a degree of crossover between team members. In total there are 12 workstations – effectively high-powered PCs using the Windows operating system – running relevant software programs.

A single step forward

But Doe also says that work on the latest GTE car represents a step forward that took AMR further towards a more holistic approach in which a single model becomes the reference point not just for immediate design work but also all downstream operations – the concept known as product lifecycle management (PLM). “We would now regard ourselves as using CAD and analysis as part of PLM,” he confirms. “We have sought to build a single model with everything fully structured from the beginning.”

One fundamental development is greater integration of 3D modelling information with related software programs. Doe says AMR’s designers use several analysis packages – some part of the Creo system and some for third-party suppliers. But perhaps the one most specific to a company making racing cars is its in-house developed lap time simulator that allows the design team to prove out the effects of possible modifications on particular race tracks.

Nevertheless, one downstream set of operations deliberately sheds the possibility of any such clever use of design data – that is communication with external suppliers, of which Doe says there are “hundreds”. Instead AMR turns again to the STEP format in which design data enters the company. The reason is straightforward enough – it enables the transmission of ‘dumb’ data that cannot be altered by the recipients in a way that would conflict with the single model maintained by the design team at the centre of the whole process. Such data can, however, still support operations such as casting, forging and ‘additive’ manufacturing. Doe adds that all such communications will also involve the use of 2D information – albeit in electronic format rather than on paper. “We still have a drawing for every part,” he states.

The unseen ‘glue’ in all of this is the Windchill software. Doe agrees with the notion that the ability of CAD systems to represent and manipulate 3D geometry is no longer an issue of any great importance. “We can do pretty well whatever we want in that respect,” he confirms. Instead the crucial advance, certainly for a design operation like that of AMR which, compared to a major OEM, is marked by its compactness and the short deadlines to which it works, is the advent of affordable and practicable data management. Doe indicates that it is really in the last three to four years at most that this has been the case. For AMR, then, the challenge is now to exploit its potential to the full in an environment in which even the slightest edge in the performance of the final prod uct can make the difference between winning and losing where it counts – on the race track.

Growth of a fusion concept

Meanwhile the worldwide automotive industry continues to be both a major customer and innovative user of the fusion of CAD and PDM software that together make up the PLM concept. The 2012 PLM Market Industry Analysis Report by the US analysts CIMdata illustrates the point precisely. In 2011, the global automotive industry was by far the major factor in a market sector accounting for worldwide sales of relevant software worth $4.57 billion – a figure projected to reach $7.5 billion in 2016.

The report identified a number of factors driving this growth quite apart from the emergence of major new manufacturing areas like India and China. One, for instance, is the globalisation not just of supply chains but also of design chains, as OEMS from different parts of the world enter into cooperative relationships with each other to develop common vehicle platforms that may be customised to satisfy particular regional demands.

Another is the devolution of increasing amounts of design responsibility from OEMs to major suppliers as part of a drive to compress total development timescales. As the report somewhat mordantly notes, US OEMs in particular learned “the hard way” some time ago that customer purchasing was increasingly being conditioned by a preference for “fresh designs” at a higher frequency than the eight-to-nine year cycle that had come to be the standard in their domestic market. Halving that timescale was a major factor in the success that Japanese manufacturers came to enjoy in the US market. Interestingly, the report adds that the South Korean industry is now the one setting the pace in that respect.

Colouring the whole process

The most superficial attribute of any car – quite literally – yet one that can be absolutely crucial to a customer purchasing decision, is its colour. Yet the selection of vehicle paints by manufacturers has obstinately remained a procedure highly reliant on small-scale physical samples provided by paint suppliers with a degree of guesswork involved in working out how a particular shade might appear on a full size car in different lighting conditions.

But a cooperation between paint supplier DuPont and US software firm Luxion could change that situation. The two have got together – with further aid from internet service provider Sabretooth – to make DuPont’s digital library of paint colours available as an online download for use with Luxion’s KeyShot 3D rendering and animation software.

According to Dan Benton, North America color marketing manager for DuPont Performance Coatings – based, appropriately, in the heartland of the US automotive industry in Wilmington, Delaware – the innovation is derived from an older colour matching service the company provided for vehicle repair shops. That service relied on the use of a piece of photographic hardware called a spectrophotometer that enabled repairers to record the colour of a vehicle and compare it with the DuPont library to achieve the closest possible match.

But Benton says that the new service is of a different order of capability. “It is much more dynamic,” he states. Instead it allows users – providing they have a KeyShot license – to log in and simulate the use of DuPont paints on complete vehicle bodies under a range of simulated ambient light conditions.

Indeed, Benton is confident that the service will provide a degree of realism in the virtual world that could previously only be achieved through the painting of a full size clay replica. “It will show users exactly what a colour will look like,” he promises. Nor is the service limited to single uniform hues. It will also, he says, enable the simulation of lighting effects on metallic paints.

At present Benton says that the service – which is free of charge – has around a thousand colours available. But DuPont has many more stored in digital format and intends to add them to the service in increasing numbers. More information at www.keyshot.com/dupont

Understanding geometry

Both those trends, it could be argued, show that the challenges currently facing automotive companies in their use of design technologies no longer concern issues of geometry creation and representation, rather they revolve around issues of data management and communication.

But according to CIMdata president Peter Billelo the automotive sector is still grappling with issues surrounding the use of its design technologies that impinge directly on these key concerns. A specific problem, he indicates, is enabling companies using design systems from different vendors to communicate not just straightforward geometry but the associated ‘intelligence’ that goes with it. Only then can extended design chains really operate as completely integrated single design operations irrespective of distance or the systems involved. Billelo says work is underway – under the auspices of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) – to develop an appropriate ‘visualisation standard’ known as JT, though it is still someway from being realised.

A new generation

Right now one of the newest embodiments of that growth of the automotive industry on the western Pacific rim alluded to in the CIMdata report is gearing up to make itself a real force in the area. The company is the Yulon Group of Taiwan, which has in fact been making cars since the 1950s – for the most part other companies’ cars, including vehicles from Mitsubishi and Nissan, as a contract manufacturer. It is now worth $7.9 billion a year and along the way has also designed and built vehicles of its own, the first being a passenger car called the Feeling 101, which was produced from 1985-91.

Since 2009 though, the company has got back into the business of producing its own vehicles in a much bigger way. So far there have been four, all using the brand name Luxgen: the seven-seat Luxgen7 MPV in 2009; the Luxgen7 CEO in 2010, effectively kitted out as a mobile office; the Luxgen7 SUV in 2011; and the Luxgen5 Sedan in 2012. That spate of vehicle introductions has paralleled a massive increase in the resources of the company’s design and development operations based at its HAITEC Design Center in the Taiwanese capital Taipei. Four years ago it employed just 23 design staff and around 300 engineering personnel. Now some 1,500 engineering personnel and 100 designers are at work.

One of the first of the newcomers was James Shyr, senior vice-president of the design group, who joined after serving as director of design for GM (China). He believes the centre is the “newest” major OEM vehicle design operation in the world as, unlike most other OEM design operations, it is not working within the confines of a “legacy” but is “pretty much a start-up.”

Shyr admits that there are some inherited traditions from the company’s earlier foray into vehicle design and other conditioning factors from its home base in Taiwan. That vehicle from two-and-a-half decades back, for instance, was unusually technically advanced for its time. “[The Feeling 101] had fuel injection and a head-up display,” he notes. As for the Taiwanese connection, he says that it is a country with a great affinity for IT devices and that the vehicles that HAITEC originates will have to acknowledge that propensity – at least where its own domestic market is concerned: “We are designing for people who grew up with the iPhone and iPad.”

Hence, explains Shyr, the operation will aim at achieving the twin product attributes of “modernity” and “affordable luxury”. A hint of what he means is perhaps found in the dashboard of the Sedan vehicle, which is dominated by an unusually large monitor screen - 10.2” diagonally from corner to corner – of the sort usually encountered on a Notebook computer.

Designs on the future

At the moment the business still has a largely regional focus, though its sights are already set on targets beyond its immediate home. Indeed Shyr admits that mainland China rather than Taiwan itself is its major prospective market. As such, despite their geographical proximity, the company is well advanced with plans for both manufacturing and design operations on the mainland as well as in Taiwan. As Shyr explains, the design technologies employed by HAITEC are not incidental to those ambitions. The main design system is currently the Catia V5 3D modelling software suite from Dassault Systemes with lots of use, in particular, made of its ICEM surface modelling program for vehicle styling. But he says the operation is already thinking in terms of upgrading to the subsequent V6 release of the software, not so much because of any enhancements to the actual modelling capabilities it will offer, though it will offer some, but because of the way it will support simultaneous distributed design operations.

Specifically, explains Shyr, V6 has been developed to support working through the ‘cloud’ computing concept, in which data is stored remotely from the actual design location and accessed via the internet with local computing power – the hardware that the designer actually interacts with – used only to support immediate desktop operations. This will be the means, he states, by which the existing Taiwanese and projected mainland Chinese design teams will be able to operate not as separate sets of activities but as a single integrated operation with equal access to a shared database. That capability will be an essential step towards fulfilling an ambition that Shyr states succinctly and unambiguously: “We intend to be a full portfolio car company.”