Efficient tools and processes deliver smooth 2009 Ram launch

  • 19-Dec-2008 10:36 EST
The on-schedule manufacturing launch of the all-new 2009 Dodge Ram at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant went smoothly with comparatively fewer engineering changes, meeting cost and technical targets.­­­­

Despite troubled times, engineers are more dedicated than ever to designing and launching new vehicles efficiently with high quality. Maybe the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 program has some lessons to offer. As one of the most important programs in the Dodge lineup, the pressure was high. It launched on time and with better quality than programs of similar size, according to the current chief engineer. How did they do it?

What helped were new tools added to the basic Chrysler Development System (CDS) repertoire. This included complete adoption of CATIA V5 along with extensive use of Knowledge Based Engineering (KBE) tools. Limiting the complexity of the architecture was also important, a key lesson in today’s challenging environment.

The 2009 Ram was the first program designed entirely on CATIA V5 from Dassault Systèmes. “Although CATIA V5 has been around for a while, this was the first program that used it for all designs, even those from our suppliers,” said Michael Cairns, current Chief Engineer for the Ram product line. “This decision without question [helped us meet] our timeline as well as improve efficiency.” To him, the more comprehensive solid model base in V5 made CAE, such as FEA, more efficient. The result was a well integrated design. “When we built our first ‘skin’ prototypes, everything fit together,” said Cairns. Skin prototypes are typically built after all parts are released by engineering. They are used to test the design intent of the entire vehicle. Occurring about a year before launch, problems with these prototypes can mean disastrous missed schedules and cost overruns if expensive hard tools need to be changed. Speaking from his over 25 years of experience, Cairns notes that using CAD in general, and all designs created from the same CAD system in particular, simplifies everything. “It used to take us months just to sort out the design mistakes, quite frankly. Those [problems] are gone because the models tell the story."

As well as adopting CATIA V5, Chrysler also invested heavily in the Knowledgeware KBE tool supplied by Dassault. Chrysler uses it to standardize how engineers meet today’s myriad of regulatory and market demands while incorporating best practices in design. “Chrysler started working with Dassault with CATIA V5 very early, and KBE was a cornerstone of their strategy,” said Bob Brinchek, Automotive Marketing Manager for Dassault. “The Knowledgeware capabilities and the design automation capabilities [were recognized] as a huge productivity enhancer.” KBE as a project was first instituted about a decade ago in the body engineering groups. While the framework is supplied by Dassault, it is the knowledge stored that is the key enabler for efficiency, according to Cairns.

Cairns believes the KBE tools contributed to a disciplined, quality execution on the 2009 Ram. Describing one automatic template technology as morphing, they are able to take an existing complex model—such as a body-side aperture, door, door trim, and window glass—and make a design change to one part that transforms the entire system. This includes regenerating finite-element meshes. “Without question [this contributed to a faster, more efficient] program. The body-side [design] especially,” said Cairns. He describes this as especially useful for the Ram pickup, with its standard cab, crew cab, regular cab, and quad cab variants. “While oversimplifying a bit, it is almost as simple as ‘hitting a button’ to reflect one change in all four models. It resulted in a huge savings in design work while improving quality.” KBE also contributes to standardization and commonality of parts across platforms.

Finally, a key decision in the program was to limit complexity. Limiting options reduces product combinations, thereby reducing design and testing. Manufacturing likes it because it reduces cost in the assembly plant. Cairns compares the build/option complexity in body style, weight, and powertrain permutations of the 2009 Ram 1500 as roughly comparable to the Toyota Tundra and approximately four times less than similar offerings from General Motors or Ford. "The '09 Ram program benefited directly from not having to engineer and qualify as many build combinations, reducing overall workload,” said Cairns. “The lowered build combos led to less last-minute changes, which helped the team focus on launching, rather than product changes, during the critical final months prior to V1 [the launch of product]."

So how well did it come together at the end? A useful metric for comparison is the number of late engineering changes required. These are changes required after a part is released and supposedly frozen. “Compared to other programs of a similar magnitude, we had half the number of late engineering design changes,” claimed Cairns. “Really, this program was on track the whole way. We met every gate [with containable problems], suppliers were selected on time and came through with their designs, our finances were on track. We met our launch date with quality vehicles.”

Though process and tools are important, the personal touch cannot be underestimated. “While a structured process like CDS and tools like KBE are important, I don’t want to underestimate the passion that is required to execute a program well,” explained Cairns. “You can have the best process in the world, but if you don’t have people with passion behind it, it does not work.”

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