Automaker Goes 'Digital'

DaimlerChrysler uses IT to design plants, cut car production cycles

NEW YORK -- DaimlerChrysler AG is in the early stages of automating the way its manufacturing plants are designed, a project that will require an eight- to nine-figure investment and is aimed at reducing the company's new-vehicle production cycles by up to 30%.

The world's third-largest automaker announced its Digital Factory plans at a briefing here last week. The initiative is an attempt to simulate the entire production process -- from initial drawings of facilities to final functioning assembly lines -- "before one brick is put in the ground," said Susan J. Unger, CIO at DaimlerChrysler.

As part of the project, DaimlerChrysler expects to use manufacturing design, simulation and visualization tools developed by Dassault Systemes SA to help design, build and retrofit all of its plants by 2005, Unger said. The Digital Factory plan comes two years after the automaker launched a similar initiative called Fast Car, also based on Dassault's technology, to speed up its vehicle design work.

DaimlerChrysler began using the Digital Factory approach in February as part of a project to build a new engine-manufacturing plant in Koelleda, Germany. Unger said the factory designers used Dassault's Catia computer-aided design software as well as virtual manufacturing software made by Delmia, a subsidiary of Paris-based Dassault.


The use of the tools is expected to result in reductions of roughly 30% in construction time and 10% in per-square-foot plant floor costs at the Koelleda plant, Unger said.

DaimlerChrysler is also running a pilot program with the software at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany that's being retrofitted, Unger said. She added that the company previously implemented "a degree" of digital manufacturing planning in construction projects at two other plants in Germany and a Jeep assembly facility in Toledo, Ohio, as precursors to Digital Factory.

The possible investment range cited by Unger would cover the cost of software licenses, hardware and implementation work if DaimlerChrysler goes forward and licenses the Delmia software on a worldwide basis, a company spokeswoman said.

Wolf-Peter Seuffert, an IT manager who is heading the digital manufacturing pilot project at Mercedes-Benz, said via e-mail that the Delmia tools previously hadn't been used in application environments as complex as those in the automotive industry.

But, Seuffert said, DaimlerChrysler officials "are 100% sure and confident" that the software is scalable enough to meet the company's needs, which include managing 500,000 production-related data records for its Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars alone.

The Digital Factory strategy is similar to design automation efforts that are being undertaken by other major automakers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., said Jack Maynard, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

"They're all trying to do a lot more in working on designs in electronic form, where it's cheaper to make changes, before they start bending metal," Maynard said. "It's expensive to do, but it works out to be little on a dollar-per-car basis."

Unger said that DaimlerChrysler also expects Digital Factory to produce improvements in vehicle quality and production workflows. For example, the virtual manufacturing tools should help production engineers determine before manufacturing starts whether a specific part will fit into a vehicle as planned, Unger said. That could minimize the need for expensive rework once manufacturing has begun, she noted.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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