DaimlerChrysler's 'digital factory' gets motoring

DaimlerChrysler is in the early stages of digitising its end-to-end manufacturing operations in an "eight to nine-figure...

DaimlerChrysler is in the early stages of digitising its end-to-end manufacturing operations in an "eight to nine-figure investment" aimed at reducing production cycles by up to 30%.

The world's third-largest automaker announced its "digital factory" at its North American Innovation Symposium this week in New York.

The digital factory simulates the entire production planning process - from facility drawings to line assembly - "before one brick is put in the ground", said Susan Unger, senior vice-president and chief information officer at the automaker.

DaimlerChrysler, which reported sales totalling $136bn (£87.7bn) in 2001, expects to plan, build and operate all of its worldwide manufacturing plants using manufacturing simulation and visualisation design tools from Dassault Systemes in France by 2005.

The company is running a pilot program at its Mercedes S-Class facility in Germany using Dassault's CATIA computer-aided design and manufacturing software, as well as virtual manufacturing software from Delmia, a Dassault subsidiary.

DaimlerChrysler has already implemented a degree of digital manufacturing planning with the construction of its Mercedes-Benz A-Class factory in Rastatt, Germany, and engine plant in Bad Cannstadt.

Its Toledo North assembly plant in Ohio, which produces the Jeep Liberty, was also created using the simulation tools.

DaimlerChrysler's digital factory is consistent with similar efforts by other major automakers, including General Motors, Ford and Toyota, said Jack Maynard, an analyst at Aberdeen Group.

"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," said Maynard. He added that Unger's eight to nine-figure project investment estimate was similar to what other major automakers were spending on their initiatives.

"It's expensive to do, but it works out to be little on a dollar-per-car basis," said Maynard, who estimated that the use of these simulation and engineering tools could pare production cycles "by 20% to 30%".

Unger pointed to other benefits anticipated from the digital factory, including improved quality and workflows. "We never pursue any [IT projects] unless there's a significant return," she said.

DaimlerChrysler also recently replaced a Unix-based supercomputer used for advanced vehicle design with a cluster of 108 IBM/Intel-based workstations running Red Hat software. The Linux computer grid has generated a 20% performance improvement compared with the supercomputer at 40% less cost, Unger said.

Read more on Business applications