Automotive manufacturing is evolving rapidly, with data-driven car design and flexible manufacturing processes being made feasible. Design prerequisites are changing and carmakers want maximum product differentiation in every segment they operate in. Earlier, external design was the only differentiating factor for a product. Now, with virtual prototyping and advanced simulation techniques, ubiquity can be eliminated from virtually every aspect of vehicle design. This has resulted in software solution providers partnering OEMs from the factory and assembly line stage, for process optimisation.
The Indian automotive industry is driving innovation and technological advancement, and as a result, automobiles today represent highly sophisticated technology making its way to consumers. From the early stages of planning, automakers design new vehicles with a range of diverse technologies that meet customer needs for comfort, convenience and safety, while improving performance and energy efficiency at the same time. Almost every aspect of the modern automobile is now high-tech, using state-of-the-art materials and processes that rely upon a highly skilled workforce as well as, in many cases, a high degree of automation.
Indigenisation has helped Indian car manufacturers develop domestic capabilities customised to local specifications. Atul Marwaha, Senior Vice President (Services & Trainings), DesignTech Systems Ltd, says, “In its initial years, the automotive industry was buying all aggregates from OEMs overseas, but the struggle was to integrate all the elements together and create the final product. Indian OEMs have done well in identifying the design and structural elements they wanted for a new vehicle concept, putting the right inputs at the right place and creating a workable model were the key challenges.”
An area where software developers have made rapid progress is robotic simulation. Most automotive plants today are getting highly automated, with robots engaged in welding, installation activities, and other complex tasks, which are being targeted by the man-machine interface. The work sets are designed from the fixtures on which the vehicle’s body panels are going to be fastened, to programming the robots in terms of the functions they are supposed to perform. These are managed through technical manufacturing software applications.
“We can today help build entire factories, calculate the time taken by a robot to perform a certain function and ascertain the throughput of a factory over a period of time,” says Marwaha. Thus, right from the concept stage, where a vehicle is being designed from a market standpoint, to the designing of a factory, the entire value chain can be handled and worked upon, to avoid assembly line errors.
Virtual prototyping has emerged as a potent tool to replicate real-world modules and eliminate or minimise defects. The prototypes must take into account the manufacturing paradigms and match up to actual specifications. Sheetalchandra Hukkeri, Director of India Operations, ESI India, says, “Once we have a prototype, our aim is to build it virtually, experience it and test it on all specified parameters. All this requires virtual simulation software to interact with the product under development. This needs to be done early in the lifecycle of a product before an OEM starts investing in the final assembly line requirements. This helps in predicting the product performance, reachability and fitment analysis.”
For design engineers, choosing the right software plays a big role in arriving at the final result. The proficiency in building the right design or using the right tools to build a model has long-term effects on downstream applications. Achieving proficiency in the right software tools enables all the stakeholders to adopt change seamlessly. Simulation software is the most important part of vehicle safety, as it helps ascertain the dynamics of a vehicle according to specifications. For example, the headlamp and tail lamp assemblies require vibrations simulation during journeys over uneven terrain, and thermal simulation for better heat management during prolonged usage. With the latest in LED technology, for example, OEMs must ensure that the printed circuit boards (PCBs) do not heat up beyond a certain limit.
From a design standpoint, if an OEM is going for a model upgrade, it involves multiple aspects within a vehicle. All the upgradation and modification carried out needs to be validated for load conditions, reliability and the longevity of the vehicle. For a software service provider, it is important to engage with carmakers in terms of validating the new product digitally and through mathematical simulation services that can help an OEM test their product. It is also vital to engage with the OEM in creating CAD data using the technologies available. “Once the CAD data is prepared we check whether it is seamlessly integrated and then we look into the digital validations that need to be run. This helps in creating a workable vehicle model, with all elements in place and thereby helps in substantial cost reductions for the car manufacturer,” says Marwaha.
Indian OEMs have all the technology available to meet prescribed safety standards and requirements specified by global and domestic validation bodies. India being a value-sensitive market, the challenge is to make safety elements affordable. From the software standpoint, service providers are able to predict, implement and tune a vehicle to meet government specified safety norms. These may be in terms of upgrading materials, adding more reinforcement or having better crumple zones. The simulation protocols are complex enough to ensure that a vehicle is designed to meet the required safety standards right from the inception stage.
From the structural rigidity of a vehicle, to integrated features such as ABS and EBD, Indian automotive software developers collaborate with OEMs across all stages of a vehicle development. “This provides us the flexibility to have passive safety options seamlessly integrated within the system at whichever stage required. Platform sharing by OEMs has also helped us create certain standards, which enables technology upgradation much easier,” says Marwaha. Thus, there is a need to have a software system, which manages all platforms and material compositions, and makes sure that with any new change envisaged, certain factors are carried forward, without the need for fresh evaluation.
One of the key aims for OEMs is also to reduce the number of recalls that are being witnessed globally today. “Currently, the auto industry is facing a large number of vehicle recalls and most of them are due to manufacturing impacts. In most cases, the designs are perfect, but the activities like stamping, welding or casting, induce their own distortions in the system. If these can be taken to the final analysis and addressed during simulation, the end product is saved from a multiple defects,” says Hukkeri.
The future is expected to witness advancements in terms of connected car technologies as well. This provides exciting opportunities for service providers to improvise and innovate for the end customer. Dr Rishi Mohan Bhatnagar, President, Aeris India, says, “Connected cars in the near future will warn drivers when there are any obstacles ahead. In case the driver fails to respond, the application will stop the vehicle automatically. Vehicles with embedded alcohol sensors will immobilise the vehicle if alcohol is detected in the driver’s breath. Vehicles are also coming with parking aids and situational awareness.”
Materials play an important role in the design and development of a vehicle today, especially given lightweighting and efficiency concerns, along with safety issues. The right materials, along with the right manufacturing process, go a long way towards ensuring the success of a vehicle. Today there are options available for 3D printing of materials, which allows an OEM to create shapes not possible earlier. Selecting the right material for a vehicle from its design stage helps control the weight, stiffness and the durability of the final product to a large extent. However, composites today still remain an expensive alternative, but with mass adoption of such high-grade materials, a gradual increase in their usage and adaptability can be expected. “Once there, composites have the potential to replace all the sheet metal currently being used in a vehicle,” says Marwaha.
DesignTech has been working in the field of weight reduction through the use of alternate materials like composites. General engineering works include vehicle durability, looking at fatigue lifecycles and looking at process optimisation for ease of manufacturing. One of the things, which DesignTech pioneered recently, was performing a digital study of the vehicle’s maintenance. “In many cases, designs are built based on certain assumptions, but when you have to produce for final production, you end up making a lot of compromises and changes, because the original concept was not viable,” says Marwaha. Termed as a digital mock-up, and through the use of technologies, it becomes possible to put together the entire vehicle, and to simulate the conditions in which a worker or an engineer is going to interact with the vehicle on the assembly line. This helps in visualising how a shopfloor engineer can interact with the vehicle during maintenance when it enters the workshop.
Material types are constantly changing. Manufacturers are opting for rigorous lightweighting through the use of high tensile steel. However, attaining the right structural properties with a high degree of flexibility is difficult with such a material. “Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are also gaining ground, but the Indian market is not yet ready for such technologies. The challenge is to analyse these products for complexities. Conventional methods cannot be used to calculate the analytics. One needs to take specialised material properties into consideration,” says Hukkeri.
THE WAY FORWARD
Weight reduction and emissions compliance are critical issues for carmakers today. If vehicle mass is reduced substantially, it will lose stiffness and rigidity, thereby compromising safety. Similarly, making the body stiffer increases the overall mass of the vehicle, thereby increasing fuel consumption, and in the process, emissions. Carmakers hence have to maintain a fine balance between weight reduction requirements vis-à-vis safety and efficiency.
“In connected vehicles in the near future, applications will monitor emissions in real-time, and trip reports will also contain information on specific pollutants released into the atmosphere by the vehicle. This will increase awareness and build sensitivity among vehicle and fleet owners about their responsibility towards managing emissions,” says Bhatnagar.
Automotive software developers have been upbeat about the recent advancements in the automotive sector and have kept pace with the on-going market buoyance. However, with BS VI norms going into effect by 2020, commercial viability must also be prioritised. This will particularly be a challenge for the Indian market, which is not only price sensitive, but also has government policies that affect the design and development process of new cars.
TEXT: Anwesh Koley