Bart Simpson takes a look at how automotive manufacturing challenges can be changed into opportunities
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders recently announced that car manufacturing in the UK is at its highest level for a decade. What’s more, a new report forecasted that the UK’s automotive sector is heading towards record vehicle production in 2020, which will surpass the previous 1970s levels. The latest figures from the Automotive Council also show similar levels of growth for the UK automotive parts sector, with the volume of parts sourced from UK suppliers increasing by 32 per cent from 2011 to 2015. At the same time, global car buying figures are at their highest ever level, with China continuing its position as the largest light vehicle market in the world. However, with these fantastic growth figures there remain a number of areas car manufacturers and designers need to keep an eye on.
That is because consumers’ expectations of cars, and how they’re used, are changing rapidly. The car is less of a status symbol than it once was; with many younger people simply see them as a way to get them from A to B. At the same time, there is a growing overlap between automobiles and consumer technologies. Cars are becoming smarter, more connected and easier to use. People are also expecting them to be much more environmentally friendly. They also want these new features now, and aren’t willing to wait for manufacturers to catch up. All of these factors are transforming what is expected by consumers of the cars they buy.
The challenge manufacturers and designers are facing at the moment is whether they have the expertise and tools in place to respond to these changes. However, as with any problem, this presents the automotive industry with substantial opportunities to take advantage of some of the latest trends.
One of the key drivers for design and manufacturing in the automotive sector is time to market. Consumers can be fickle, and new trends can spring up very quickly. The difficulty that automotive manufacturers can face is responding to these trends quickly enough so that consumers still want a new vehicle when it is released. Given the complexity of the automotive supply chain, it means that the initial designs have to be created as quickly as possible. This, in turn, means having the right digital tools available at the design stage to allow designers to create new ideas and turn them into high quality renders. From here, it is then possible to get feedback from both customers that might want to buy the car and from suppliers that need to make the parts before anything has been physically created. This is where there is a lot of opportunity for manufacturers to speed up the whole development processes by taking advantage of the latest design, prototyping and manufacturing software.
Design as a differentiator
The next area where there is a challenge facing the automotive sector is ensuring the vehicles they’re producing are able to stand out and provide unique appeal to their audience. Producing something distinctive is vital in a very competitive marketplace, especially with many models sharing common components and subsystems. This is where the physical aspect of the design process comes into its own, with the most successful design teams demonstrating how clay models are still important in understanding how a vehicle would look in the real world. However, the challenge is incorporating the physical clay models back into the digital design workflow once the designers have made tweaks to the model. 3D scanning tools can play a really important role here, by creating a truly joined up design process. However, the opportunity now exists for automotive manufacturers take this one step further and create a true feedback loop, so that multiple clay model iterations can be fed back into the design process to create a truly unique vehicle.
While the majority of cars on our roads are fundamentally similar to those of 50 years ago, by the 2020s we may see a complete transformation in what we think of as a ‘car’. Google’s prototype driverless car is a long way from anything modern drivers are used to. There’s no steering wheel for a start, and no control pedals. While Google’s car is obviously radically different to what we know at the moment, even electric vehicles are transforming the fundamentals of what we expect. For example, true electric vehicles have no need for a traditional drive train, meaning no need for the transmission tunnel. This frees up a lot of space within the car. Equally, with the vehicle’s dashboard controls becoming increasingly controlled by software, all you need is one touch screen panel, rather than multiple buttons across the dashboard. For automobile manufacturers, this is an opportunity to think beyond the traditional layout. However, this can only be achieved with a design and manufacturing process that can simulate the combination of software and mechanical components cars will incorporate in the future.
One of the biggest trends vehicle manufacturers now need to consider is that of fuel efficiency and limiting the impact of automobiles on the environment. While fuel prices may be at the lowest they’ve been for a number of years, consumers still want to get the most out of their cars. A key part of this is making designs that are more efficient, using both lighter materials and more efficient designs. This is where the design and manufacturing processes have to work hand in hand. New cars have to be created with new materials in mind. Alongside this, the designs need to reflect the manufacturing tooling available. If you want to use aluminium, or lightweight composites in your new car, this must be reflected throughout the design and manufacturing workflow. There has to be real integration in the software behind the design and manufacturing workflow. Of course, when this is done effectively then manufacturers can benefit from faster time to market with vehicles that meet customer needs.
It’s clear that we’re seeing an exciting time in the automotive industry. As with many other sectors at the moment, established ways of doing things are falling by the wayside. The automotive industry is going to be no different. Vehicle manufacturers will have to understand these trends and ensure they can respond if they’re going to remain competitive. The only way to achieve this is by not blindly sticking with existing processes, workflows and technology. As the industry is being disrupted by new technology, so too do automotive manufacturers need to embrace this disruption if they’re to continue to thrive.
Bart Simpson is Business Development Lead at Delcam, part of Autodesk. Delcam holds a central role in UK manufacturing, one that it has developed since the 60s. Headquartered in Birmingham, Delcam’s range of design, manufacturing and inspection software provides automated CADCAM solutions for a variety of industries, ranging from aerospace and automotive to toys and sports equipment.