The value of variety vs. the cost of complexity in E/E design

  • 12-Mar-2012 02:05 EDT

Martin O’Brien

Vehicle makers are constantly striving for consumer attention amid intense competition. That competitive threat is no longer just locally grown but is increasingly driven by low-cost entrants from emerging-market producers progressively gaining in ambition and sophistication. Indeed many new entrants actually benefit from an absence of legacy solutions that impede the adoption of new tools and/or processes that can transform a company’s ability to reduce cycle time and cost while improving quality. This “clean slate” advantage is one that many new players possess.

So while vehicle makers are pressured by the need to evolve capabilities in the face of process incumbency and organizational resistance to change, new economic realities have created a generation of consumers obsessed with choice and skilled in comparison shopping. They expect increased value from every feature, yet demand an almost unlimited opportunity to personalize their vehicle via the selection of options. The need to satisfy this unbridled appetite for choice is compounded by diverse regulatory requirements and model variants as manufacturers seek to capture markets efficiently with “world cars.”

As each vehicle’s configuration becomes increasingly unique, not only must design and manufacturing operations cope with great variety, but also data for maintenance and repair must be available on a vehicle-specific basis. The automotive industry is therefore facing an explosion of configuration complexity that carries significant costs relating to manufacturing scale, obsolescence, validation, and documentation—among others. This conflict between the value of variety and the cost of complexity is one of the biggest challenges facing carmakers today.

Nowhere is this challenge felt more acutely than in the variety in electrical configurations required, which can rapidly grow into tens of millions to satisfy all possible vehicle permutations. Vehicle electrical/electronic (E/E) systems design demands tight, multidisciplined cooperation across engineering domains. Requirements are decomposed into features and the functions that deliver them. These, in turn, are expressed as logical systems or devices (frequently carrying complex embedded software) tagged to such systems, which must be physically placed within the vehicle and then interconnected via thousands of analog or digital signals. All this must be implemented using components created by an extensive supply chain ahead of final integration into the vehicle and validation by the OEM, with design change being a constant headache. Finally, repair and warranty data should be captured and used to continually refine the marketing decisions and design constraints that shaped the E/E content in the first place. Sounds easy, does it not?

What is clear is that the approach that served the industry in the past via a mix of in-house solutions and heterogeneous commercial software tools cannot be sustained. But the characteristics of a solution that tackles the challenge of E/E complexity are becoming clear. These include respect for data integrity and cross-domain integration; increased abstraction so that design content can be synthesized from higher level inputs; sophisticated design change handling; and capabilities embedded throughout the flow that manage and control configuration complexity.

However, there is more than one approach that can be taken by tool vendors attempting to develop such solutions. While monolithic engineering environments or large single-vendor data repositories may be superficially attractive, they are neither necessary nor even desirable because no single vendor possesses sufficient domain expertise across the board. Open service-based architectures that facilitate data exchange, collaboration platforms that manage metadata from multiple sources, and emerging standards are all building an environment that enables tool vendors to contribute valued domain expertise without compromising their own innovation.

Fortunately, commercial software with precisely these characteristics is now stepping up to support modern E/E design processes. The challenge for established vehicle makers is to embrace this new technology, preempting emerging competitors from adding process superiority to their perceived cost advantage.

Martin O’Brien, General Manager, Integrated Electrical Systems Design Division, Mentor Graphics, wrote this article for Automotive Engineering.

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