Increasingly, manufacturing begins not in a factory, but in a computer. Whether it’s a completely new sports car designed by thousands of enthusiasts in a “co-creation” environment or the organisation of the millions of lines of code behind most innovations in production-line cars, software is where the action is.

Like Athena, who sprang from the forehead of Zeus, the Rally Fighter has sprung from a Jovian mind. Indeed, unlike any other vehicle on Earth, the Fighter, an outlandishly aggressive 6,2-litre, 320 kW sports car, is the product of a community of human minds – thousands of them. Their venue: the virtual world. Their goal: to zap their vision of the ultimate street-legal warrior-on-wheels into affordable reality.

Parked in front of the hanger-like headquarters of Local Motors (LM), a rapidly growing start-up on the sandy southern outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona where it was created, the Rally Fighter is the first “community-designed” vehicle. Also known as “crowdsourcing”, and at Local Motors as “co-creation”, community design can tap the knowledge and creativity of vast numbers of enthusiasts using computer-aided design (CAD) software.

Properly managed by an in-house team of engineers and designers, and incentivised with cash rewards for winning designs, participants can work individually or coalesce into competing groups focused on specialised sub-projects. All told, the process can dramatically accelerate the design and development of a complex system.

So rapid and efficient is LM’s formula for translating ideas into industrial products that the company, which is less than six years old, was awarded a contract by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the office of the US Secretary of Defence.

Impressed with the way Local Motors had developed the Rally Fighter, DARPA asked the young company to prove whether community design could be used to develop a truly affordable, lightweight military transporter.

What LM came up with was the XC2V, the world’s first crowd-derived combat-support vehicle. “Not only did we show DARPA that the project could be accomplished on schedule and under budget,” says John B Rogers, the CEO and cofounder of Local Motors, “we gave them a process by means of which this could be done over and over again.”

The vehicle is now undergoing testing. But creating a CAD-based part in a global co-creation environment is very different from doing so within a company where everyone is using the same software. A single LM project recently completed for a major German carmaker, for instance, involved work by some 300 people using a wide variety of CAD systems and file formats. “Those people need to interact with each other and with us to get feedback as they develop each part,” says LM engineering-community manager Alex Fiechter.

To smooth this process, LM turned to Siemens PLM Software and its Solid Edge CAD platform. “The software has a unique ability to cleanly import many different file formats. And as far as community work is concerned,” he says, “it provides more flexibility than any competing product.”

Once a community has finalised its design for a part, the design is downloaded to LM’s waterjet, an automated rapid-prototyping machine that uses only high-pressure water and an abrasive substance to cut a part from a block of steel that can be up to 23 cm thick. “To go from idea to reality, all you need is a CAD design on a memory stick,” explains Fiechter. “The part can then be mounted on a prototype vehicle and tested on the spot.”

To make its CAD platform affordable for the average LM user, Siemens developed a version of Solid Edge called Design1 that essentially fills the gap between free or low-cost CAD solutions with limited functionality, and pricey full-function commercial solutions. “Solid Edge Design1 is a unique CAD solution for enthusiasts around the world who participate in the Local Motors collaborative design community,” says Karsten Newbury, senior vice president and general manager, Mainstream Engineering Software Business Segment, at Siemens PLM Software.

“For instance,” adds CEO Rogers, “Design1 allows LM’s members to post a design, even a thumbnail, but at the same time allow other users to call up that image in a browser and see it in 3D, take measurements from it, and then comment on it. So it is a very valuable co-creation tool. Anyone who has downloaded it can collaborate with people who are using completely different CAD Software better than non-users can collaborate with each other.”

Could Local Motors’ experience with community design signal an opportunity not just for start-ups, but for major manufacturers? Replies Newbury: “I think it offers the potential of improving capabilities and accelerating processes by doing more with existing resources while opening the door to increasingly customised products.

“DARPA is a case in point. They want to become much more efficient. It typically costs the US government billions of dollars to develop a vehicle. But it took LM only four to six months to pull one together for a nickel and a dime. So I think that what this shows is a much broader scope for accelerating innovation and access to ideas, and all of this without expanding the size of engineering teams.”

Software on wheels
If there’s one luxury that start-ups such as Local Motors have, it is that they begin life with a clean slate. Major manufacturers, on the other hand, no matter how innovative, are burdened with legacy systems. But at Ford Motor Company, management has found the key to building and servicing cars in a smarter, faster, more cost-effective and increasingly personalised way. It’s called Software, and it is, to an ever-increasing extent, where manufacturing begins.

According to Dr Stefan Jockusch, vice president, Automotive Industry Strategy at Siemens PLM Software, “Sixty per cent of the features that make today’s cars attractive are implemented in Software, while about 70 per cent of problems and recalls can be traced back to some kind of Software incompatibility issue.”

Indeed, as Chris Davey, senior technical leader for Software and Control Systems Engineering at Ford, points out, many of the company’s current cars are outfitted with 50 to 70 computers running over 15 million lines of code that control some 50 000 functional requirements ranging from propulsion and accident prevention to infotainment and navigation.

In view of the growing economic significance of Software for manufactured products, and the associated explosion in complexity, Ford has worked closely with Siemens to implement an In-Vehicle Software (IVS) management system – a global information platform to manage all of its automotive software and hardware.

Using Siemens’ Teamcenter, the world’s most widely used product lifecycle management (PLM) system, Ford now works with the same database for everything from in-house and supplier development to production and service. “In the production environment,” says Davey, “IVS tracks the hardware that has been installed, as well as the related software, and makes sure that the two match exactly.” This information translates into sizable economic benefits. Not only are defects and inconsistencies avoided, but, when it comes to service, Software updates – and in particular, detailed information on Software versions – is in some cases making it possible to avoid the costly replacement of electronic control units. Thanks to Teamcenter-based IVS, Ford dealerships can now download the exact Software update needed for a vehicle, thus saving resources, accelerating service and reducing the risk of introducing new problems.

In North America alone, this “flash reprogramming” capability has saved Ford big bucks. “We initially expected savings of between one and five million dollars per year,” says Davey. “But in three years, we’ve avoided more than one hundred million dollars’ worth of module replacements.”

– By Arthur F Pease | First published in Siemens’ Pictures of the Future magazine.

* Related article – Q&A with John B Rogers Jr of Local Motors
* Related video – Watch the Rally Fighter do a front flip at the Parker 425, land on its wheels, then drive 472 km to the finish line