Will the industry ever work off of one CAD platform or should suppliers turn to the next best solution?
More than $1.4 billion a year is spent correcting engineering incompatibility in the auto industry. Thats money being wasted on the fairly basic task of suppliers and their customers talking and working together. Its also money that could be used elsewhere like cutting vehicle prices or improving margins. Suppliers are spending billions of dollars each year running and being proficient in multiple CAD platforms. They do this at the request of their customers who use not only several different programs industry-wide but often several different versions company-wide. While the solution seems simple use one single common platform across the industry it is more difficult than it sounds. There are other answers as well, but experts agree they have to be used and accepted on a wide spread basis. It would be like finding a cure for cancer as far as I'm concerned, says Akram Yunas, program manager for the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG). It might happen down the road but nothing in the foreseeable future. The different CAD programs weren't a problem 20 years ago when suppliers dealt mainly with one customer. Once the globalization of the industry started suppliers began working with several customers and were asked to work on, in some cases more than three systems, Yunas says. For automakers, the different CAD platforms give them a competitive edge thats why they use them. They also help designers with specialties. But the different platforms also create a complexity that increases costs for suppliers, who maintain software, hardware and specialists for each CAD platform which includes CATIA (for DaimlerChrysler, Renault, Volkswagen), SDRC I-DEAS (for Ford), Unigraphics (for General Motors), Pro/Engineer (for BMW) and several company specific programs (for Mitsubishi, Toyota and Nissan). Furthermore, even within companies with alliance partners they aren't using the same systems. Smaller Tier One companies can suffer a $250,000 to $400,000 annual cost penalty for having to deal with the different systems, while larger companies could be penalized by more than $500,000 a year, says Kenneth Baker, president and CEO of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Altarum. Besides the cost issues, a supplier cant be an expert in all platforms and will be only proficient in several leaving room for mistakes. Altarum estimates that for every additional system a user must master, their proficiency in each system drops by 30 percent. Experts also point out that suppliers may use one platform one year and may not use it the next. They are constantly learning and relearning the systems depending on which OEMs they are working with that year. All of this is time consuming and, more importantly, expensive. The ultimate solution is for automakers to agree to use one CAD system. The main problem that we have is we have to have people trained in the different packages. We have to have in some cases different type of hardware where the different CAD packages ran. That basically increases the cost of the suppliers, says Luis Lorenzo, global director applications development and engineering, for Dow Automotive. By going to a single common platform that would allow the suppliers to be more efficient and have lower costs. While this is the ultimate solution its just not going to happen anytime soon, say experts. Even if Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler and other automakers could agree and used the same system they wouldn't upgrade at the same time and each would be highly customized within the company and within the industry. It would also be very expensive considering they would have to translate all existing information onto the new system, train their people and buy the software. It doesn't happen over night and it costs you money, Lorenzo says. So what is the solution? For Dow it is to continue to align the company with each OEM customer and maintain CAD programs for each automaker. The company then assigns specific programs to designers with experience on the program. Yes, admits Lorenso, this is more expensive. One other less costly solution is to use neutral standards, like the Standard for the Exchange of Product model data (STEP) standards, Baker says. In this case, information from one CAD platform is translated into another via standards agreed upon by an international committee made up of automakers, suppliers, vendors, associations and select government officials. This would allow automakers and suppliers to work in their own programs but have it translated into their customers CAD program of choice with the help of STEP. This is what is being done in many cases in Europe, where STEP is more widely used. The large manufacturers there DaimlerChrysler, BMW, VW and so on are standing behind the STEP standard 100 percent and allowing their suppliers to communicate back to them via STEP which alleviates the need for that supplier to necessarily have the CAD/CAM platform installed that the OEM has, says Thomas Salva, vice president, manufacturing industry for T-Systems, a Chicago based infrastructure company specializing in systems integration for the automotive industry. Not only does this help with the data exchange it also makes it easier for companies to archive their legacy data. Any application you have is going to be evolving and at various times you lose backward compatibility to your designs, says Steven Ray, division chief, manufacturing systems integration for the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), a agency of the U.S. Commerce Dept., which has funded programs developing neutral standards and other solutions to the interoperability problem. It is impossible to bring up a 20-year old electronic design today because the software that produced that design doesn't exist anymore. The advantages of neutral standards, like STEP, is that it is very well documented and is designed to be operating system and language neutral. Additionally, it also helps companies keep very tight control on the data leaving the company, says Simon Frechette, group leader, manufacturing systems integration for NIST. Depending on which standard you use you can transmit as little or as much information from a file to a supplier or customer, he says. Its another ability to control how much data is leaving your company, says Frechette. While STEP is being used in the U.S. it is not seeing widespread use and will not until the OEMs come out and publicly say it is acceptable to use the standard. Instead, what is happening, says Frechette, is that automakers are allowing suppliers to work in CAD systems different from there own for preliminary designs. When theres a final agreement reached then that design is ultimately somehow delivered in their format and where the supplier goes off and hires someone to put it in their format or the put it in that format themselves,Frechette says. Still STEP is not error proof. The problem with doing that is you have no 100 percent translators, Lorenzo says. There is always some information that gets lost in the translation.? When the work is done on different systems then translated interoperability comes into play. Oftentimes companies have to reenter data wasting time and ultimately money. Data also can be lost or entered improperly. Every time you reenter you have quality issues, says Lorenzo and Salva. Having to recreate (the data) costs more than just starting with the right software, Lorenzo. The interesting thing, he says, would be to have a tool that would translate 100 percent of the data, he says. He may get his wish. AIAG says it has tested software technology and standards that shared data up and down a pilot supply chain made up of several automakers and supplies without any loss of data. Still, it is now up to vendors and suppliers to further develop and use the technology. But again the issue is a dead one if OEMs do not give their okay to use the STEP standards to help translate data. Hopefully, say experts, this may happen. Interoperability has traditionally been a supplier issue even though the OEMs are very aware of the problem. But, says Baker, it is becoming an OEM issue for several reasons including cost. It will come to the point when automakers and suppliers cannot absorb the extra $1.4 billion it costs to maintain this structure. Speed will also become part of the equation as everyone attempts to bring new vehicles to market faster. Lastly, the industry will begin to see a redefined business model and this will be one of the complexity issues that needs to be taken out of the system. In the past the Big Three automakers used to make a lot more of their own things which they are now contracting with someone who may be halfway around the world, Ray says. A lot of this has to start flying electronically which means you have to agree on the format of how that information is sent as opposed to just walking down the hall and talking to the guy in the other division about what you want.