With CAD/CAE becoming so well integrated into product development, it seems as though the role of physical models is becoming decreasingly relevant. Sometimes called “artifacts,” physical prototypes are becoming artifacts in the archeological sense. Ostensibly, the move toward digital development is one that is driven by a need for faster time to market. That is, if you don’t build models out of atoms and just build them with electronics, then you’ll be further ahead.
So why do the people at Innovative Body Systems (IBS; Sterling Heights, MI) think that Detroit developers are actually taking longer to get the job done and spending more money than they would if they actually used physical prototypes? Tim Smith, chief operating officer at IBS, says that on a typical program, the method that they employ could save six months in time and 25% in development cost.
It’s not that he and his colleagues have anything against digital engineering. Smith points out the window of the IBS conference room to a cable running from the building to a telephone pole: He explains that they are in real-time communication with their customers (or are pumping out one gigabytes of data per second). But the people at IBS not only know Detroit very well (e.g., Smith was with GM for 12 years; prior to signing on as partner and vp of Engineering, Tony Bingham was Body Lower Structure Sub-System Leadership chairperson at GM), but they have also studied and implemented methods that are used by companies including Honda and Toyota (Robert Fairchild, partner, president and CEO of IBS spent the previous 15 years as vp of North American Operations for Fuji Dietec, a Japanese stamping, die and body systems firm).
There are at least a couple of reasons why the people at IBS are pro-physical models. For one thing, Bingham observes, “When you’re living in the math world, things are difficult to see.” That is, although the images may seem right on the screen, when that information is used to create physical product, things like intersections and blends of body panels may be exceedingly awkward in the 3D world. Which leads to the second point, which is that by having a physical model early in the program, there is something for all of the people who are involved in product development to look at and communicate about so that decisions are made that have a consequence on other aspects of the program. “We believe in a balance between the virtual and the physical,” Fairchild says. And when they’re talking “physical,” they mean something other than even clay: “Clay is too perfect,” Fairchild maintains.
Admittedly, the people at IBS have what Bingham calls a “body-centric” view of the world. But Smith points out that a body-in-while can represent about half of a vehicle program cost, so that’s not necessarily a bad place to focus.
But it isn’t just about building a model. There are other ways that IBS reduces time and saves money. For one thing, there is what Smith calls an “integrated value stream.” What they have done is to create an organization that either directly owns capability (e.g., its staff has expertise in body engineering and tooling) or has partnerships with companies (that can create such things as tooling or assembly systems, or that have expertise in areas such as materials or powertrain) so that they are able to work in a turnkey mode. IBS works with partners around the world, taking advantage of competencies (Fairchild says, for example, that Japanese companies are fast in development; British companies tend to be good in low-volume production). They can take on, essentially, total responsibility. Arguably, the name of the company could be “Integrated Body Systems.” Smith observes, “Some companies can do prototypes. Some companies can do dies. Some companies can do weld tools. Some companies can set up plants. With our consortium of companies, we can do it all.”
One of the problems that they’ve identified with the usual course of affairs in traditional domestic OEM product development is that there are not only internal disconnects (i.e., between in-house departments), but that as there are an increasing number of suppliers involved (for things ranging from dies to assembly tools—to say nothing of components), the whole thing is comparatively “disjointed.” So they’ve created a comparatively small organization that holds fast, disciplined meetings around specific, tangible issues.
“None of this is new,” Fairchild admits, but adds, “But what is new is that we’re putting it all together.”