One million lines of mechatronics code are embedded in the average automobile — a statistic that keeps auto industry executives awake at night. Here's why: The synergistic integration of electromechanical components that use embedded software accounts for up to 35% of automotive quality problems and 55% of repair costs, according to AMR Research. Common troubles caused by mechatronics include poor testability and difficulties predicting the negative impact of system failures.
Yet, even in the face of mounting quality issues and additional sleepless nights, automakers believe mechatronics will continue to play a key role in the future of the industry. That's because electromechanical components enable automakers to outfit vehicles with important safety equipment, such as rearview cameras, not to mention consumer electronics gadgets that car buyers crave. According to IDC, advancements through mechatronics will pave the way for 90% of tomorrow's vehicle innovation.
Not surprisingly, the number of lines of mechatronics code is expected to grow by 50 to 100 times in the next three to five years. That means automakers must scramble to find ways to address a looming, industry-wide quality crisis. Among other things, automotive manufacturers have tried organizational and methodological changes, such as changing testing procedures, taking a more conservative approach to innovation, and increasing reliance on system suppliers to guarantee system function and compliance. However, for the most part, these corrective measures have not solved the problem.
A number of factors account for the lack of progress in addressing quality problems created by mechatronics, according to Joe Barkai, practice director at Manufacturing Insights, an IDC company. Among them are increased time-to-market pressures and auto manufacturers' need to reduce R&D costs. Furthermore, according to Barkai, current computer-aided engineering (CAE) and product lifecycle management (PLM) tools do not fully support whole system simulation and testing. So far, in fact, none of the major vendors of CAE and PLM tools have announced software packages or modules that directly address the issue, Barkai says.
"Current PLM and CAE tools do not offer enough in whole system simulation and testing," Barkai says. "Right now, PLM solutions only reside on the PowerPoint platform, which means that PLM venders are only able to talk about them. PLM suppliers talk about the need to locate systems engineering in the embedded software, but they really do not have much to offer. PLM companies need to manage the different clock speeds of development and also support whole system simulation. The bottom line is that PLM vendors don't have the answer yet."
PLM Vendors' Major Focus
Ed Miller, president of CIMdata, a global consulting and research firm, agrees with Barkai, but he is more optimistic about the current crop of PLM products.
"PLM vendors are a long way from having the problem solved," Miller says, "but over the next 12 to 24 months, there is going to be a tremendous focus on this issue. We have seen movement to integrate the process engines of suppliers of mechanical, electronics, and software tools with PLM control environments. We've seen genuine PLM initiatives to develop solutions that can be taken to an automotive OEM or a major supplier."
To head off the growing quality crisis, Miller recommends that automakers and other manufacturers facing quality problems brought on by embedded electronics focus on system design that incorporates mechanical, electronic, and software design as elements of a coherent effort. "The key challenges result from poorly synchronized mechanical, electrical, and software engineering processes," Miller says. "This leads to higher product cost, poorer quality, and increasingly longer product cycles. In addition, the time spent by engineers to overcome these problems reduces their ability to innovate."
As Miller points out, PLM vendors are mounting major efforts to address the quality problems created by mechatronics. At PTC, for instance, addressing the process control issues that Miller outlines is at the top of the company's "to do" list.
"Our customers are asking us to provide them with a solution that can pull information from a variety of mechatronics components," says Martin Walters, director for automotive and industrial market strategy at PTC. "Additionally, we can be of assistance with traceability. Traceability will allow the designer to drill down to the individual component level. This will provide a better understanding of the interface between each component and the overall vehicle. By making that connection clear, designers will be able to test the software and fix the links between different components."
Tools such as PTC's Product Development System already provide functionality, such as process, data, and change management, that can help automakers verify and validate designs that include embedded mechatronics, Walters says. The Product Development System also already integrates with many of the tools used by electronic and mechanical CAD systems.
In addition, PTC has begun to incorporate features that specifically help to expose data from electronic design tools for use in mechanical designs, Walters says. In 2005, for example, PTC integrated into its platform the capability for engineer collaboration on electrical printed circuit board design data.
Another capability within Windchill, PTC's content and process management solution, is the management of software source code within a complete product definition.
"Back in 2005, we integrated Windchill with IBM Rational ClearCase. As a result of these efforts, process efficiency and overall quality can be improved because we have a single solution to manage the data developed by MCAD, ECAD, and software developers," Walters says.
Customers Push for Solutions
Siemens is also ratcheting up its efforts to provide a PLM product that addresses the automotive industry's mechatronics troubles. Like PTC, Siemens is focusing on providing automakers with the ability to visually navigate among data elements found in the automaker's complex web of electromechanical components and software. The inability to make this association is the crux of mechatronics-related quality problems, according to Rahul Garg, director of mechatronics for the automotive industry at Siemens PLM Software.
"Many of the mechatronics software changes are not seen as affecting other parts," Garg says. "For example, when a designer makes a software change to a seat motor's electrical and software components, it may have an effect on the airbag associated with that seat. This dependency is something that may not automatically be known, but it is something that the PLM system can manage."
As automakers' use of mechatronics accelerates over the next three to five years, there is little doubt that the trend will present unprecedented quality challenges. But the industry is not alone in its fight. Aerospace and defense manufacturers are also struggling to control the mechatronics built into their systems. And this should provide some comfort to automotive manufacturers, according to CIMdata's Miller.
"The good news for automakers is that this problem isn't just an automotive industry problem. Most of the major industrial sectors are feeling the same quality pressures created by mechatronics," Miller says. "Automakers, vendors, and the suppliers of PLM tools are being pressed from all directions ... which means the solutions being developed will be more robust."
Source: Editorial from the January 2008 issue of Managing Automation, Automakers Push PLM Vendors for QC Solutions(Short Circuit), by Marty Weil, Contributing Editor