Looks right, feels right – Collaboration in design

Posted on 7 Sep 2009 by The Manufacturer

Collaboration in design isn’t just a nice idea – increasingly, it’s becoming essential as OEMs focus their efforts even more tightly. Ruari McCallion sucks his pencil, pensively.

Linda Barron, a partner in Barron Gould and a director of Texxus Ltd, observed not so long ago that, if British R&D investment had fallen to just 1.5 per cent (as was being reported) then it was ‘a disgrace’. Actually, it’s worse than that – it’s a threat to the country’s intellectual base. Competitor countries across the world are ready, willing and eager to get into the design space, in which the UK has excelled for decades. We have some of the world’s best design talent coming out of our universities – if in doubt, take a look at the design departments of large companies across the world. Peter Horbury is returning to Volvo Cars as vice-president, design, after a few years transforming the look of the products of Ford Motor Company in America – the only one of the Detroit ‘Big Three’ to have avoided Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Audi, Renault and other auto manufacturers across the world have British designers in key and influential positions. The look and feel of a product is at least as important as its function and quality – yes, there is an argument that it is less so, but if you have a wonderful product that looks awkward, people won’t buy it – or not in sufficient quantities to make it profitable. Fiat Multipla and Renault Vel Satis, anyone?

The idea of collaboration in design makes sense and fits in neatly with the established practice of outsourcing non-core activities. Using external specialists, within design companies, draws on a depth of expertise and breadth of experience that an OEM – in whatever industry – may not have, or may not be prepared to maintain. But there is another aspect to it, which is more likely to be the pattern in the real world, and that is of supply chain partners undertaking some of the work. They will focus on their bit of the whole and work to deliver it to the specification – and to improve it, bringing their own expertise and knowledge to bear. Obviously, this cannot go on in an uncontrolled manner but the practice is pretty well established – Catia seats at suppliers are the norm in the aero industry. Autodesk made its business on building collaborative design tools, and Adobe’s Acrobat 3D enables designs to be turned into easily-transferable pdfs. Teams of designers, from different parts of the world and different countries, can work on the same product simultaneously, refining their part of the whole while ensuring it continues to meet the core parameters.

Manx Engineering, on the Isle of Man, works with GE Aerospace, among other clients. It’s a relatively small company – fewer than 30 employees – but it has decades of experience with high-performance materials and it is able to leverage a lower cost base (compared with companies on the UK mainland) to maintain competitiveness. UltraMotive, which is headquartered at Leafield, near Oxford, is one of the world’s leading design consultancies specialising in the auto industry. It uses advanced IT to bring projects to rapid fruition and has worked on projects like the Aston Martin Vanquish, Volvo’s C70 and, famously, the RenaultSport Clio V6, which it turned from impractical concept to road-going production vehicle in less than 18 months.

But collaboration isn’t solely about headline-grabbing concepts: it’s routine. The challenge is managing it.

“Collaboration among organisations is helping to drive innovation in the marketplace. Examples include the development and design of new aircraft where each organisation is a specialist in its own area of design,” said John Jackson, technical director, SO Direct. “There are more collaborative ventures as the major organisations are off-loading production, assembly and test into the supply chain and this means it is more difficult to control. Where a number of collaborators are involved, the dangers of project over-runs, time delays, and increased costs are compounded.”

According to Oracle, technology enables automotive companies to better communicate with the final customer, effectively serve them and understand their expectations, more closely match supply with demand, better manage price pressure, etc, etc. Yes, indeed, but in the real world, these things don’t always happen and a key reason is that many existing systems are integration-centric, meaning that owners of those systems spend most of their time and money integrating individual applications and related databases, rather than focusing on the information the systems are intended to provide. Oracle says that its e-Business Suite is set up differently, that it has “…an information-centric architecture that leverages an already-integrated set of applications that all utilize the same underlying set of data”. Which is good, but note the ‘already-integrated’ bit. If they are integrated, then users can analyse and use data collaboratively, rather than wasting time trying to collect it. Those who do are more likely to be successfully focusing on productive activities, rather than wasting time and effort on getting the software to work.

One company that has been using collaboration effectively is Ford. It has worked with Schneider Electric, Loughborough University and its European machine builders for more than five years and has included coordinated UK and European research projects with a total value in excess of £4 million.

The reason for the collaboration is to develop a new approach to control systems engineering and the lifecycle support of industrial automation equipment. Up until this point, there was poor reuse of automation equipment, which can take up to two years to build but is required to last beyond 10 years. It can be costly for companies that have to change the system, for example when they are producing a new product. The collaboration has now made it possible for existing systems to be reworked, which leads to significant cost savings for industry. Key academic staff from Loughborough University have worked within Schneider Electric’s R&D and support facilities in the UK, France and Germany and at supply-chain companies, including Ford’s UK and US sites. They conducted a number of research projects on automation, including GAIN (Global Automation Infrastructure to Enable Service-Based Engineering), which was research focusing on the application of Web-service technology for both real-time control and the seamless integration of business systems with automation systems. This project aligned with Schneider Electric’s core strategy of delivering collaborative control systems utilising both standard ethernet based technologies and web services to provide seamless integration and transparency through operation of automation control devices. Other projects focused on the definition of next-generation modular reconfigurable assembly machines; new methods for virtual commissioning, remote assistance and reconfiguration of machines; and the development of a range of new control devices.

The overall outcome of the collaboration is a lifecycle support environment for automation systems, from virtual engineering right through to practical control system realisation. The tools are ultra-lightweight and the systems used throughout the collaboration projects were designed to be used by all engineers
across the supply chain, in contrast to current systems, which are used only by CAD specialists. The tools were fully integrated with the target control systems, which is different to traditional approaches that offered little or no practical integration between digital engineering and target PLC-based controllers. The results from the initial trials and studies of the engineering and business processes at Ford estimate the potential for very significant cost savings. The amount of engineering resources is predicted to be reduced by 27 per cent, and the robustness of the first-cut system design is expected to increase by up to 40 per cent. Overall savings of more than 20 million Euros per engine programme are expected.

Something more modest – but no less valuable to the participants – has been achieved by a KTP (knowledge transfer partnership) between Queen’s University, Belfast, and Macrete Ireland Ltd, a specialist in precast concrete technology. The company spotted an opportunity in developing an unreinforced arch that uses a non-corrodible polymer. With a skilled engineering KTP associate from Queens and access to the knowledge and resources at the university, the company developed a sustainable, flexible modular concrete block arch system for the widening or replacing of arch bridges with spans from three to ten metres. It is transported as a ‘flat pack’ and takes minutes to form once lifted onto site. It offers a cost effective, highly durable, aesthetic solution and provides Macrete with a major advantage in the bridge market. The project is expected to increase turnover and has had other benefits, besides, including improvement of the company’s quality management.

Industry cannot afford to take the single task, one-off route, however; involving external agencies or contractors on a one-off basis only increases overheads, according to SO Direct’s John Jackson.

“What industry really needs is a new model which provides an integrated, holistic approach, which is both seamless, yet flexible, in order to capitalise on the defined project from conception to burn down,” he said. In short, industry has to capitalise on the opportunities offered by true collaboration and partnership – which will involve a level of information sharing that may be uncomfortable, for some. But that is a story for another day.