PLM, multidisciplinary simulation enable automotive mechatronics integration

by Dave Taylor, Siemens PLM Software , TechOnline India - October 29, 2008

With cars becoming "living rooms and laptops on wheels," managing mechatronics content from diverse sources is critical.

Although the basics haven't changed—four wheels, transmission, engine, and so on—today's vehicles have a staggering amount of "high tech" and "intelligent" content: Cars with DVD players and iPod® compatibility; cars that respond to voice commands; and cars that parallel park themselves. Automobiles have more communication and entertainment options than most homes had just a dozen years ago.

In terms of computing power, the average vehicle now contains the rough equivalent of 50 to 100 small laptop computers in its electronic control units, and these are linked to each other by as many as 10 computer networks. A luxury sedan has between 10 and 15 million lines of embedded software code—the same amount required by a Boeing jet as recently as 1997.

Software and electronics have become the primary areas of innovation for automakers. Some industry analysts have predicted that by 2010 up to 90% of the innovation in this industry will involve electronics, with some 80% of that coming from software. This is both good and bad news for the OEMs.

But first the bad news
It's bad news because OEMs are now scrambling to manage and integrate a huge amount of vehicle content, much of which is outsourced. To get a feel for that challenge, consider the present generation of smart airbags that adjust inflation based on the weight of the occupants and their seat positions. The seats must communicate flawlessly with the airbags even though the seats and the airbag systems come from different suppliers. Other safety features automatically activate when airbags deploy (the headlights flash, the horn honks, the doors unlock, etc.), so other systems must be integrated with airbag operation as well. Imagine the project management effort required on the part of the OEM when a design change is made to any one of these systems.

This is one of the biggest challenges currently facing automakers and their suppliers—managing the complex relationships between the mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software (collectively referred to as "mechatronics") content of a vehicle—and it has become a make-or-break situation. That statement may seem like an exaggeration until you realize that some automakers have opted to remove some electronics content from their vehicles because they haven't been able to manage the complexity it presents! Removing content at a time when customers expect constant improvement in vehicle safety and infotainment is not the way to capture, nor captivate, the market.

Whether they've had to remove content yet or not, all automakers are struggling to manage the new level of complexity in their vehicles. The software pieces alone are particularly problematic, as evidenced by a McKinsey & Company report ("Getting better software into manufactured products," Spring, 2006) showing that 55% of the industry's repair costs derived from problems with embedded software. Automakers are facing a problem they cannot afford to ignore.

{pagebreak} The good news is that automakers who can manage complexity gain a tremendous competitive advantage. Rather than removing content, they can add the new features that capture the buying public's attention and still keep warranty costs at a minimum. From Siemens PLM Software's work with automakers around the world, we have identified a number of best practices for managing today's level of vehicle complexity. Three are presented here:

Establish system-wide dependency management
Today, development teams achieve a sufficient level of productivity within the individual domains but struggle to integrate them. Teams work in relative isolation, disconnected from related work in other domains and lacking awareness of changes that affect them.

One example of a dependency that must be managed is the clearance data that a mechanical engineer must provide to an electronics engineer so that a printed circuit board will not be harmed by mechanical vibration or heat. Dependency management also includes understanding the impact of one subsystem (such as seat control) on another subsystem (such as the airbag).

Full mechatronics dependency management means having the ability to define, visualize, and navigate relationships between data elements and data structures across the various mechatronics domains. This capability can be achieved, in part, by having a single repository for all vehicle data and by leveraging a common data model. This common repository must span the entire enterprise and all applications used to develop the vehicle, including the supply chain. This architecture enables all parties to collaborate in a shared context—so that one supplier can see the impact of its changes on another's designs and vice versa, for example.

Represent the entire Bill of Material (BOM)
The mechanical systems in today's vehicles won't change significantly once the vehicle is in production but it will be necessary to update the embedded software inside the vehicle from time-to-time. Thus it is necessary for the OEMs to represent the entire bill of material, which now includes software and electronics, in addition to mechanical and electrical systems, for all vehicle configurations.

In addition to a more comprehensive BOM, better configuration management techniques are required to capture the multitude of variants of the final vehicle in the field, to manage the variety of software versions and individual feature configurations, and to associate them with the corresponding hardware. Such comprehensiveness ensures that when an owner takes his car into the dealership for service, the right binary "flashes" are used for his vehicle configuration.

Prove the entire system virtually
Computer simulation of vehicle behavior has saved OEMs countless millions of dollars in testing costs and contributed greatly to the huge time-to-market reduction we have seen in the last few decades. The challenge for the industry now is to extend simulation from the mechanical realm to entire mechatronics systems.

A simulation of an airbag firing on its own has value, but imagine how much more effective simulations can be when they include the whole system. In the airbag example, the software, ECUs, electrical wiring and hardware of the seats, the airbag system, the lights, the door locks, and the horn all need to be simulated as a single, mechatronics system. This requires simulation tools capable of multidisciplinary simulation, handling multiple data types, and a variety of performance parameters.

This is a tall order. Each of these best practices requires supporting technology capable of handling this new level of complexity that has become the automakers' reality. As a long-time supplier of product lifecycle management (PLM) technology, Siemens PLM Software is committed to providing the automotive industry with the ability to turn complexity into competitive advantage.

Dave Taylor is senior director, Automotive Marketing for Siemens PLM Software.

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