Teeming with ideas

  • 26-Jul-2010 11:45 EDT
aecollab1Mustang.jpg

The 2011 Mustang uses Sirius Travel Link to bring drivers a range of information.

Consumers are expecting more technology in new vehicles, and they’re no longer willing to wait years to buy cars that have the latest consumer-type electronics. In response, the design teams challenged to blend the reliability requirements of vehicles with the rapid changes in consumer technologies and expectations are increasingly looking outside their corporate walls for help.

Infotainment electronics are getting more complex, yet design teams must integrate them in shorter cycles. Downsized engineering staffs are tapping expertise that exists among suppliers, forging tighter links and developing products together.

“Collaboration will be the way to do business, especially for leading-edge technologies,” said Chuck Broadwater, Navigation System Supervisor at Ford. “It helps shorten time to market, and it lets you bring in newer ideas.”

It’s hard to miss signs that collaborations are becoming more common. Earlier this year, Daimler, Renault, and Nissan teamed up to jointly develop engines and electric powertrains. General Motors partnered with Reva Electric Car Co. to combine their technologies for vehicle sold in India. “Partnerships driving smart mobility” is the theme of this fall’s Convergence conference.

Today, partnerships occur throughout the supply chain, sometimes even between rivals. Two of the leading suppliers of automotive semiconductors, Freescale Semiconductors and STMicroelectronics, teamed up to jointly develop ICs (integrated circuits) they’ll each market.

Many of today’s partnerships mark a significant change from many collaborations forged several years ago; they work.

“We’ve had a very successful partnership with Freescale,” said Kevin Gagnon, Vice President of STMicroelectronics’ Automotive Business Unit. “Not too long ago, that type of arrangement only happened when one company bought another.”

In another departure from the past, many partnerships combine expertise of three or more companies. For example, Ford teamed up with Clarion and Sirius to develop Travel Link navigation software. This system, which provides up-to-the-minute information on fuel prices, traffic, weather, sports scores, and movie listings, leverages Sync, a voice-activated system that was developed with help from another partner, Microsoft.

In the beginning

As collaborations become more popular, they’re evolving rapidly. Many companies have become far more comfortable working with partners during the earliest phases of design. That marks a change from the days when OEMs either created the overall requirements or turned to a supplier that had developed something they wanted to build upon.

A growing number of collaborations begin with little more than a concept. That was the case with Ford’s partnership.

“Typically, we go to a partner when they have something developed to go forward with,” Broadwater said. “Other than traffic, this project started with a clean sheet of paper.”

Ford isn’t alone in its willingness to let partners provide input on the basic concepts of a system. Suppliers note that this openness extends throughout the industry.

“Every manufacturer is looking to suppliers for new ideas that can be integrated into the very early stages of conceptual design for new vehicles,” said David Graff, Microsoft’s Director of U.S. Automotive Solutions. "This process ensures that they can field as many ‘bright ideas’ as possible and create the most successful and innovative new model concepts."

That’s even occurring at design houses located around the globe. Important systems are now being handed to outside suppliers who move projects from rudimentary concepts to proven designs.

“Companies used to look at us as more of a body shop; our engineers became part of their team to take the load off their engineers,” said Suneel Sekhri, Director of the Automotive Vertical Solutions Group at HCL Technologies. “Now that’s evolved to the point that they ask us to design whole sections and test them, like the dashboard display.”

Suppliers can often turn the somewhat customized products designed by these alliances into variants that can be offered to other automakers. After a set period of exclusivity, Microsoft has marketed its voice control systems to other automakers.

Similarly, when the navigation system was developed with Sirius, Ford had no plans to take control of the end product. “We worked with them to develop the features, then all of us worked together on an end specification that was owned by Sirius,” said Vilay Patel, Navigation System Engineer for Ford.

While the trend toward joint development is gaining steam, there are limits. When a company relies too much on a close partner, it can lose some of the flexibility that comes with having a design that is open enough for competitors to step in with better pricing or improved technology.

“There are areas where we have formal collaborations with Tier 1s, but those are tricky because the Tier 1s don’t like to be saddled with one supplier,” Gagnon said.

Tools and people

Though strategic issues play a major role in the expanded use of collaboration, the rapid technical changes of the past decade have created an infrastructure that makes it much simpler for teams located in different offices to communicate. Broadband links let teams share images as if they were in the same room, and improved computer design tools ensure that the broad range of stakeholders can stay up to date.

Tool providers have made huge strides in recent years by partnering with complementary and competitive software suppliers to improve translation between incompatible files. A number of companies specialize in translation tools that make it simpler for engineers, accountants, and marketers to view and use data created using a range of programs.

Microsoft plays a dual role in collaboration. The automotive group has partnered with many OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers while the corporate parent provides tools that are being used by CAD (computer-aided design) providers.

“Microsoft partners with Siemens PLM and PTC to provide end users with these lightweight viewers and browser-based access,” Graff said. “Specifically, Siemens’ Team Center Community and PTC’s Windchill Productpoint capabilities are built on top of SharePoint, making it easy for global teams to share and review designs, collaborate on them, and even flag issues that can then be resolved by the group.”

Engineers must still pay close attention when they’re sharing large, incompatible files with tons of critical parameters. CAD tools evolve rapidly, adding functions and capabilities, so it’s unlikely that standards or built-in translation tools will eliminate that in the foreseeable future.

But for the majority of development team requirements, the ability to develop products from remote sites is in place. “All the CAD tools are there so we can share data between partners,” Broadwater said. “We also used WebEx and other conferencing tools.”

While tools make it easier to share data, that doesn’t mean there isn't a lot of work involved. One key aspect of any collaboration is to determine what technologies should be shared and which are too important to divulge to partners. Any time critical data are moved outside corporate boundaries, there are myriad security concerns.

“Creating secure collaboration processes can be a daunting task,” Graff said. “First, it’s critical to have a policy in place that makes clear which information must be protected and which is less important to secure. Once that is in place and communicated to the team and to the partners you communicate with, technology can seamlessly underpin and support the secure collaboration process.”

Protecting IP

Protecting proprietary information is becoming a more critical factor as more data is shared among more collaborations. There is still a lot of concern about divulging critical data to multiple partners, especially those located in regions where copyright and patent laws are often winked at.

“In scenarios in which a U.S. manufacturer is partnering with a foreign manufacturer overseas and has multiple domestic teams working with multiple partner teams, the potential for IP leakage or theft could be considered high,” Graff said.

Security involves both technical protection such as encryption and human aspects such as allowing only trusted personnel to access certain files. That isn't the only employee management factor that is important in collaborative projects. Interpersonal communication is always important. It becomes even more so when some members of the team speak different languages or work in different time zones or continents. Many veterans of remote development partnerships have sent files to another region where their counterparts work on them overnight, only to find that the work is worthless because there was a misunderstanding about some requirements or goals.

Ford, Sirius, and Clarion set up programs designed to eliminate problems and keep everyone focused on the correct goals. Business travel was kept at a minimum, replaced in part by lengthy telephone conferences.

“One person went to Japan once a month for five or six months, mainly to be sure they had all the information they needed,” Patel said. “We also had weekly three-hour conference calls with our suppliers.”

In the end, many managers say that avoiding misunderstandings is just another engineering issue that must be met. “It always boils down to communications,” Broadwater said. “There were a lot of challenges, but that’s the nature of the beast. We worked through them.”

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