Ford revs up auto production with 3D prototyping

Three-dimensional digital prototyping doesn’t just improve design – it can actually speed up production.

This was a key message of Autodesk president and CEO Carl Bass, during his opening address at Autodesk World Press Days.

San Rafael, Calif-based Autodesk Inc. offers a broad suite of design software and services widely used in the manufacturing, infrastructure, building, media and entertainment, and wireless data services fields

At the World Press Days event, Autodesk customers discussed how they deployed the company’s tools.

Speed to market is not the only benefit of using 3D software, Bass suggested.

The Autodesk chief said these tools allow designers to “make more mistakes” in the early stages of production.

This, in turn, means companies can limit cost by cutting the number of costly prototypes.

American automaker Ford Motor Co. says 3D tools are enabling it to achieve some of these very benefits.

In recent years, Ford been replacing labour intensive manual design practices with automated processes supported by tools from Autodesk.

“Today we need to bring product to market quicker [and] cannot afford to be left behind by the competition,” said Peter Horbury, executive director for design in the Americas for Ford.

Horbury works with design teams of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands in the development of cars, trucks, SUVs, and crossover vehicles as well as the Jaguar, Aston Martin Land Rover and Volvo marquis.

Prior to the deployment of computer aided software and hardware tools, automobile prototypes were created using manual processes that involved countless freehand drawings and the moulding, milling and painting of clay models, he said.

These models helped designers visualize concepts, identify design issues, try out paint choices and produce product mockups that could be shown to focus groups to determine customer reaction.

The process was painstakingly slow, Horbury said. Developing a clay model could take at least seven weeks.

With the help of tools such as Autodesk AliasStudio, a portfolio of design software products that include Autodesk DesignStudio, AutodeskStudio, AutoStudio and SurfaceStudio, Ford is able to create clay models in as little as two weeks or produce detailed digital images of a car two years even before it goes into production.

Digital prototyping has revolutionized the way Ford designs, tests and produces its cars, he said.

Hand drawn images, methods employed as far back as the early 1920s, have been entirely replaced by works produced by artists using digital sketching tools.

The main advantage of this is that artists can affect changes to the sketches in the shortest time possible, the Ford executive said.

For instance, he said, artists can coat a drawing with any colour in the tool’s palette and then view the effects of various light and weather conditions on the model with the touch of a key.

The changes can be viewed from a computer screen, or projector.

Earlier methods, Horbury said involved painting actual older model vehicles and trucking them to auto dealers around the country to determine which colour scheme would be a hit with them.

Customer reaction is gauged by showing focus groups digital prototypes at a wide variety of venues, rather than driving them over to a Ford plant to see a clay model.

According to Horbury, with digital prototypes, designers can quickly identify design conflicts such as windows that produce glare or headlights that might be out of focus. Changes can be made instantly before production enters a more critical and expensive stage.

And these benefits, it seems, are not limited to large organizations.

A much smaller company such as Richlin Machinery, a U.S.-based maker of specialized CNC lattes, switched to 3D prototyping and drastically cut down its production turn around time.

“It used to take us two to three months to develop a latte for our clients. With Autodesk Inventor we were able to cut that down to three days,” said Jeff Richlin, president of the niche company.

Richlin said before his company deployed Autodesk in 2001, a business slowdown forced him to lay off around 20 employees.

Today, he said, the company is able to turn out products faster and gain more contracts by providing value added work.

In one assignment, by using the 3D design tool Richlin Machinery could incorporate improvements to a latte that enabled it to produce two other products apart from the original product requested by the customer.

This resulted in additional income.

Use of 3D prototyping in manufacturing and construction is steadily growing because companies recognize the savings and advantages they bring, according to Alberto Codrino, general director of PLM Systems, a technology consulting company based in Italy.

“Most large European companies are deploying Autodesk or competing products because it cuts down on cost and speeds up development,” he said.

Larger firms appear to be leading the adoption because the tools enable collaboration among dispersed workers.

Codrino foresees use of digital prototyping to grow as manufacturing and construction firms demand contractors and partners to use the tools as well.

This is the case of companies in the U.S. according to Jim Lynch, vice-president for Autodesk architecture, engineering and construction solutions.

He said Autodesk projects a possible 49 per cent adoption in the U.S. by next year. He said the situation could be likened to Wal-Mart’s insistence that suppliers use RFID technology on products they sell to the store chain.

“Company owners want their designers and contractors working with them to use it because they see competitors using the tools,” he said.

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