The future of auto development

Feb. 3, 2005
Some suggestions for auto companies and suppliers eager to merge into the fast lane.

Dhiren Verma
Director, Product & Market Strategy
Needham, Mass.

The automotive industry has faced considerable challenges over the last couple of years, overcapacity, ultracompetitive markets, fluctuating commodity prices, rising pension and health costs, and tightening environmental and regulatory pressures. It's gotten to the point that some industry observers have dubbed the current situation the "Perfect Storm."

To weather this storm, automakers will have to increase the innovation and reduce prices. So there will be significant change in the design content for automobiles over the next decade. The biggest changes will be in electronics or "mechatronics," as it is known in the industry. Beginning in the 1990s, electronics in automobiles have increased steadily. This trend should continue, with electronics going from 22% of total car value in 2002 to a forecasted 35% by 2015. And growth in electronics should revolve around convenience, safety, infotainment, and environmental requirements.

Similarly, software will play an expanding role in auto design, with the amount of money spent on software almost doubling between 2002 and 2015. The interior, powertrain, and chassis will contribute most to this growth in software value.

The introduction of software-controlled mechatronics will also spur the growth of in-vehicle networks and subsystem interdependencies. Furthermore, OEMs will rely increasingly on suppliers such as Delphi and Bosch, whose share of product development is forecasted to increase by 70% by 2015. And recalls associated with electronics will increase as well unless development improves.

PTC has conducted a joint study with the Center for Automotive Research, which looks at product development in the auto industry. Although the final study won't be available until later this year, major conclusions are already known. For example:

  • Auto companies all over the world take roughly the same amount of time to develop a new platform, about 24 months.
  • Innovation will increasingly come from suppliers.
  • Math-based design, analysis, and CAD will become even more important.
  • DFMA, along with design for durability and reliability, will remain the most important design criteria.

With mechatronics, success depends on engineers and IT departments having a company-wide view and closer coordination on system components. Engineers will need to know the entire life cycle of the product, from planning to after market support and disposal.

Taking a look at the design and development of a wiring harness will demonstrate the complexity of such life-cycle approach across electronic, mechanical, and software design.

Systems definition: This includes translating vehicle electrical specifications into required connections in each system; breaking down the system logically by function; creating block diagrams of designs, and selecting the right components and connectors.

Topology development: This includes translating a conceptual model into an implementable topology, component placement in vehicle, partitioning the vehicle for the harness, and placing interconnects based on physical constraints and logical requirements.

Physical harness development: This includes translating topology into real-world connections, determining physical properties of the harness such as splices, wires, connectors, and other attached parts, performing electronic 3D routing, and developing 2D harness manufacturing drawings from 3D routings.

Schematic release: This is usually the final step and includes the merger of system design and harness documentation into a practical format for field use, developing engineering system views for troubleshooting, and providing service drawings.

As these steps show, even harness design requires interplay between electrical and mechanical engineering and consideration of the harness' entire life cycle.

It's important to realize that software design differs from mechanical and electronic design. The differences encompass culture, process, and tools. There is universal agreement that software development is often the least controlled of the design activities discussed thus far. Software revisions are increasing in number and are more loosely managed compared to those in other design domains. The frequent and long revision cycles for software are creating problems, including some downstream in configuration and connecting systems, subsystems, and components.

Auto companies need to get a much better handle on software. A tool that might help is the Unified Modeling Language (UML), which is becoming a de-facto method for communicating software capabilities to suppliers and other businesses.

Automakers also need tighter teamwork between mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. The major hurdle preventing better teamwork are the different cultures, which include different tools, practices, and rules for managing design and revisions, and a lack of data-sharing standards preventing easy integration.

Auto companies must also have a Product life cycle Management (PLM) strategy that addresses all design disciplines. That strategy should include:

  • Product-data management gives engineers the right data at the right time. There should be a single source of product data that supports all design tools along with traceability.
  • Cross-discipline collaboration that lets engineers identify and resolve issues across all CAD domains.
  • Process management to establish consistent, repeatable development processes including revisions and new car introductions.


The Trent 900 jet engine being developed by Rolls-Royce for the Airbus 380 earned its airworthiness certification on schedule, 20 months after its first run. It is the leading engine for the A380 and it has met or surpassed all performance targets including fuel burn and bladeoff testing. In the blade-off test, a fan blade is blown free by an explosive charge while the engine is running at full power. It demonstrates the engine's safety systems can contain a fan blade in an emergency. Although initially the engine will go into service rated at 70,000 lb of thrust, it has been certified to operate at 80,000 lb and has put out 93,000 lb of thrust during tests.

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