Design challenges in the automotive sector

Richard Blatcher, head of marketing, manufacturing, EMEA, Autodesk, looks at how manufacturers across the supply chain can overcome obstacles in the automotive sector.

The European automotive sector has been going through difficult times. Recent figures from the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) have revealed that total vehicle production in Europe slumped year on year by 17.3% in 2009 - as the automotive sector was engulfed by the global recession. Production of cars, trucks and buses dropped by 23% compared to the pre-crisis level it reached in 2007, said the Brussels-based industry body.

While the worst of the downturn may now be over for the sector, which has been buoyed by the success of scrappage schemes across Europe, the scars clearly remain and it will take a long time for the industry to fully recover. Manufacturers continue to face a range of complex challenges as they battle to stay profitable and maintain competitive edge in today's difficult economic environment.

Business challenges
It is clear that one of the key challenges facing automotive manufacturing companies today is the drive to increase sales. Indeed, in a recent European research study carried out by Autodesk into the views and opinions of companies across the automotive supply chain*, 82% of respondents identified 'increasing sales' as one of their key objectives. To achieve this they need to maintain product quality – seen by 89% of those surveyed as a key challenge for 2010 - and reliability.

Of course, for automotive manufacturers, growth in sales is often closely linked with increased profitability (identified by 79% of those surveyed as a key goal). To do this they must be able to make faster changes to designs and reduce the overall time spent on the process – so cost-effective design technology is a key requirement.

Automotive manufacturers typically work as part of a complex global supply chain, encompassing components, tooling equipment and engineering services. In this context, one of the main obstacles they face is how to manage this chain effectively so that they can reduce costs, while protecting their intellectual property and maintaining product quality.

As they do this, they need to improve the way they communicate with suppliers and customers in order to drive up satisfaction and sales levels. Indeed, in the recent Autodesk research, 69% of respondents saw improved communications with customers as a key challenge. But they need to be aware that achieving improved customer satisfaction is also about maintaining product quality and reliability. To meet these goals, they need to use common formats and platforms that bring together their extended teams and allow them to share information more easily.

Finally, we are living in age where sustainable manufacturing and engineering processes are becoming ever more a part of the mainstream. We are seeing new materials like carbon, for example, being introduced into the automotive design and manufacturing lifecyle as well as increasing usage of plastics – another area in which Autodesk has extensive expertise. Moreover, across the sector today, manufacturers are also increasingly looking to optimise use of their product materials to reduce wastage and make products more sustainable.

To do this effectively they need to reduce their operating inefficiencies (highlighted by 58% of survey respondents as a key challenge). And to meet and overcome this potential barrier, they must be able to make faster changes to designs and reduce the overall time spent on the process.

Finding solutions
So how can manufacturing companies across the automotive supply chain conquer the challenges outlined above? One of the most effective ways is by implementing high-quality design technology with the potent combination of flexibility and rich functionality that they need to help achieve their core objectives.

In order to maintain product quality and reliability and thus drive increased sales and profitability and customer satisfaction, companies above all need technology such as the digital design solutions offered by Autodesk, that is easy-to-use and enables them to improve their business processes and get the most from their designs.

Equally, high-quality digital design technology is likely to have a key role to play in helping these companies to meet the other main challenges they are facing today from enhancing communication and collaboration across the supply chain to reducing operational inefficiencies right through to cutting out materials wastage and supporting sustainable design practices.

The automotive industry in Europe is now starting to show tentative signs of recovery. Many smaller markets that were not distorted by scrappage are now exhibiting strength as the economy improves and 18 months of pent-up demand hits. Likewise, demand for light commercial vehicle (LCVs) is now beginning to pick up in some markets, after 18 months of heavy declines.

If recovery is to be sustained, markets to strengthen and demand grow, much will depend on the long-term success of organisations across the manufacturing supply chain and, in particular, how effectively these companies are able to overcome their challenges and meet their key objectives. Their success in achieving these goals and objectives will inevitably be to a large extent dependent on the flexibility, ease-of-use and overall quality of the design solutions they choose to implement.

* This is an ongoing study in which Autodesk is actively encouraging participation through its campaign landing page

Richard Blatcher

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