Sunday, August 19, 2012

Process as a Determinant of Product: The Case of the Automobile Industry

There are certain industries where the fundamental configuration of the product is extremely difficult to change. Ever since the first true automobile was invented by Karl Benz in Germany in 1985/86 and the first mass scale production of the automobile was undertaken by Henry Ford in USA in 1910, the automobile technology has steadily reached new frontiers but the fundamental product characteristics of the automobile, from the shell and power train to the exteriors and interiors, remained the same. Somewhat wrongly, some technical experts attribute this to the conservative nature of the automobile designers, citing the developments such as supersonic aircraft and bullet trains in the adjacent segments of transportation, or the various other electronic products like smart phones and tablets that changed the lifestyles. That indeed is an uncharitable view.

The reason is that the automobile has to reckon in its design with a fundamental and immutable enabler as well as a constraint called road. The challenge and opportunity of an automobile is the existence of the road or the highway in which the automobile has to transport its passengers or cargo (notwithstanding the limited need for off-road transportation, which also only the basic design of automobile must satisfy). One may hypothesize a flying automobile but with automobiles being required in millions it simply is not an option. The automobile industry, willy-nilly, is the prototype of an industry where continuous improvements in product and process technologies rather than breakthrough transformations in product configuration set the tone for industrial progress. That said, continuous enhancements from the materials to product value chain, and transformational developments in other industries do offer synergistic opportunities for innovative product development in the automobile industry.

Product development

The passenger car has seen many product developments such as more powerful, fuel-efficient engines (from popular in-line to V engines, and relatively unsuccessful rotary engines), more seamless gear systems (from constant-mesh to synchromesh to automatic and continuously variable transmissions), more comfortable ride systems (from coil springs to parabolic springs to hydraulic and independent McPherson systems), less resistant drive systems (from manual to power steering), more safe and secure passenger environment (from seat belts to multiple airbags), more sturdy chassis (from welded constructions to pressed or hydro-formed monocoque construction) and so on. The engines have become versatile to accept virtually every kind of fuel (be it petrol, diesel, CNG or bio-fuel) or tandem with electric or hydrogen engines.

Simultaneously, significant changes have occurred in styling, from aerodynamic shapes to fluidic designs and from protective grills and bumpers to signature frontages and rear protectors. Optimized spatial designs, ergonomic seats, elegant trim, navigation systems, sensing systems, entertainment systems and connectivity options are seen as differentiators providing diverse value statements. As a result of all of the above, some of them driven by advances in electronics and telecommunication systems, cars began to be developed from sub-compact to super sedan as well as on-road and off-road as well as crossover options, with differentiated features. The world has today at least 40 major global manufacturers with a combined output of around 80 million vehicles. The population of vehicles on road is estimated to be around 1.1 billion.

Visible manufacturing processes

The process development paradigm in the automobile industry has both visible and invisible components. What is visible is the magnificent scale of changes in the shop floor technologies. The epoch making conveyor belt assembly of Henry Ford now looks basic compared to the impressive developments in flexible machining centers, robotic welding, mammoth presses, multi-level, synchronized sub-assemblies and assemblies, all in the umbrella of the famed Toyota Production System for reduced takt time, enhanced quality and optimized inventory. The design philosophy optimized manufacturing in terms of ladders of platforms that could support multiple overlapping models. It also epitomized a global manufacturing philosophy of multiple counties supporting globally unified products customized for diverse markets through innovative internal components.

As a result of such above approaches, the global automobile industry has become the text book of contemporary manufacturing management and a showcase of operational excellence practices. Manufacture of automobiles is seen as the seamless integration of planning, execution and delivery, across the entire value chain, from local to global centers of development and manufacture. This unique paradigm coupled with practices such as concurrent engineering which are uniquely developed and refined by the automobile industry to manage multi-year product development programs gave rise to the view that manufacturing efficiency is the essence of process development in the automobile industry. This visible part of process development is supported by a completely invisible component of technological process development that has changed the way components, aggregates and systems of an automobile are made. Automobile as a contemporary product is a resultant of the invisible process refinements, across the entire industrial value chain.

Invisible technological processes

While the manufacture of automobiles has many visible features as above, there exist several more invisible process innovations that are triggering product development in the automobile industry. For example, the process of combustion of fuel, be it petrol or diesel, in the internal combustion engine is at the heart of enhancing fuel efficiency and reducing environmental pollution. Fuel injection, sparking and combustion systems are continuously being developed to achieve the objectives. Complete heat recovery from the engines further optimizes energy consumption and usage. This paradigm is further supplemented by design of key components such as piston, crankshaft, camshaft and connecting rod to achieve lower weights, better balance and reduce frictional losses. In addition, the engine block itself provides, through superior boring and honing as well as liner technologies, potential to eliminate frictional losses, and also extend the life of components in the high temperature environments.

Matching innovations in manufacturing processes help optimize the rest of the aggregates too. Aluminum is now an integral part of chassis and body design and is helping reduce weight and enhance agility of an automobile. Gears and axles come with stronger basic materials and superior finishing and hardening processes to ensure smoother drives and longer lives under multiple conditions. Nanotechnology has been finding enhanced applications in a number of components and systems such as fuel cell catalysts, fuel cells, batteries, catalytic converters, polymer nanocomposites, electroceramics, nanoparticled tyres and other materials. Nanotechnology is also enhancing the life and elegance of bodyworks through better coatings, glazings, shields and in the overall, corrosion protective nanotechnology processes. More extensive use of nanoparticles and manufacture of nanomaterials and nanocomponents faces another process challenge; the extent to which nanoparticles can be contained in manufacture and the exposure limits to humans would determine the extent to which nanotechnology can be deployed.

From telematics to robotics

Processes of operating and benefitting from an automobile have seen, and will continue to see the integration of technological advances in electronics and telecommunications. In-vehicle telematics provides drivers with instant safety, security and communications services. Practical applications include global navigation systems, voice assisted driving directions, parking, acceleration and vehicle failure detection. Telematics-driven infotainment services include Bluetooth wireless and satellite radio. Future applications will include vehicle-to-vehicle communications to ensure vehicles keep a safe distance from each other to avoid and perhaps eliminate collisions. Automakers will be pressured to develop a global platform upon which vehicles are designed, engineered and produced, to leverage the most capital-intensive equipment and resources initially, and then customize and accessorize later for regional preferences. Perhaps most critically, car manufacturers and suppliers will need to embrace a long-term consumer vision to succeed, in the same way in which Apple has done with its iPod, iPhone and iPad products.

The future promises to be even more exciting. The car as known today and driven by a human being would be supplemented by video cameras, radar sensors, laser range finders, program logic controlled and software integrated driving systems to become a robotic car requiring no human intervention. Apart from enhancing seating capacity, robotic car technology when perfected would bring orderliness to roads and highways, enable productivity while on drive and eventually enhance safety by reducing accidents dramatically. Self-driving robotic cars will save time, fuel, cut traffic jams and prevent some of the estimated 1.2 million deaths that occur globally every year due to car accidents. “Safety is definitely the number one benefit,” says Sven Beiker, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. “ In 95% of accidents, human error is at least a contributing factor.” A self-driving car on the other hand cannot become distracted, take a phone call, fall asleep, or drive under the influence of alcohol.

Synthesis: process over product

Automobile as a product may not have changed so far, and may not be changing in future too in terms of a basic product structure. However, as a human-driven automobile has revolutionized transportation by substituting animal driven carriage, the existing human-driven automobile would in future be substituted by a self-driven robotic car. Such a car may include additional enhancements such as hybrid (oil-electric) engines, solar powered heating and cooling systems, and lighter but stronger materials. At the core of the product transformation is not a new product per se but a host of visible and invisible process innovations that change the specifications and operability of each component, aggregate and system of an automobile. Process innovations dictate the emergence of new materials even as new manufacturing processes enable the use of new materials on the shop floor.

The automobile industry has several interesting lessons for product designers, who have passion for new products and newer market ecosystems. When limitations on fundamental product transformation exist (as in the case of automobile) designers would do well to extend themselves as backward as possible to integrate process improvements. The smallest of the components can be redesigned to use newer materials, and render them stronger but smaller. The most complex of the systems can be reengineered to use electronics and telecommunications, and render them more efficient and seamless. Process improvements, integrating technologies from other domains could dramatically improve the product usage functionality and redefine the consumer ecosystem. Research and Development establishments must have exceptional process depth, for in several cases process could be a determinant of product!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 19, 2012

No comments: