For years auto industry leaders have been promising they would move their product development cycle times more in line with what happens in the consumer electronics industry, where new products are developed in months. In 2005, Ford Motor Co. said it planned to cut development time to 18 months from final design to production by this year. Maybe they’ll point to the Taurus as an example of that happening, but let’s get real—the Taurus is nothing more than a reskinned Five Hundred, and they know it. What about truly new products? In 2001 GM said it planned to move to an 18-month development cycle and pointed to the Chevrolet SSR as the model for that goal. That proved to be a farce, since the specialty truck took more than two years to develop from final design to production due to problems with supplier integration and communication. Even today, the industry is still trying to play catch-up and it’s pretty embarrassing.
Where’s the bottleneck? That’s a good question, especially when you begin to realize the digital tools available to designers, engineers and manufacturing experts continue to advance at breakneck speed, while the industry seems to remain in neutral. While attending a conference organized by one PLM software supplier, I was boggled by the functionality displayed and the case studies that were being presented by numerous automotive and non-automotive enterprises. Everyone from Rolls-Royce aeronautics engine to Proctor & Gamble are realizing the true benefits of using digital tools to manage their product development enterprises.
During a discussion with one auto industry insider—who asked to remain anonymous—I was told the problem is with the people side of the business. Sure, software can be developed that will transform the way vehicles are designed, engineered and built, but those bits and bytes are worthless if the operator is unwilling or unable to utilize the tools to their utmost. Too much functionality is being left on the table. Likewise, the massive amounts of data and information available at the click of a mouse can be overwhelming and counterproductive when it comes to the race to speed product development. This requires enterprises to be more diligent with how they handle the data that follows new vehicles through the product development process. It also requires those behind the computer monitors to keep abreast of the latest technologies and software advancements designed to make their jobs easier; “designed” being the key word here.
What it all comes down to is this: the road to reducing product development times will require a massive change in the marriage of man and machine. One cannot be successful without the other in achieving the goals of reduced cost, improved speed to market and better overall quality. Installing the most advanced CAD, PLM, EDPM or any other acronym-laden software does nothing if the person who has to use it doesn’t understand what’s available and how to use it. The human factor has to be taken into account.
While some will contend the relationship between designers and engineers will always be cantankerous, it may not have to be that way if both sides have a more clear understanding of how the processes and tools used can benefit everyone in the mix. One auto designer recently complained to me that the manufacturing and engineering sides of the house were going to use the latest software tools to limit his ability to craft fresh designs as the automaker moved to advance its parts reuse rate across various platforms. What he failed to understand was the new software that would help target reuse was focused solely on those portions of the vehicle that were not related to design, rather to areas where the customer has no tactile interaction with the vehicle. Did anyone clearly express this to the design team? Doubtful and yet another clear example that no matter how much money you throw at technology, the simple act of clear communication is the key to making any enterprise more successful.