By Leslie Mertz
Two of the most innovative areas in the auto industry today don’t involve a new fuel injector, better battery or turbo technology, even though Michigan is continuing to make headway in all of those areas and more. One of the two hot spots in the industry is the connected vehicle, an area that is getting a great deal of buzz in engineering circles. The other is less glamorous, but forms the basis of advanced manufacturing: the modernization of the manufacturing process itself.
Spotlight on: Connected Vehicles
As you drive down I-75, your mind drifts to a difficult meeting you had earlier in the day. Your reverie is broken when your car shouts, “Warning! Slow down!” With that alert, you are able to hit the brakes in enough time to avoid rear-ending the suddenly slowing car ahead of you. Your heart rate returns to normal as you exit the freeway onto a surface street. “The approaching light will change to red in 14 seconds,” reports your car.
This system may be possible as early as 2017, according to Mohammad Poorsartep, project manager of the Connected Vehicle Proving Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The center is a primary testing site for this new technology. “The connected vehicle is about using 5.9 GHz dedicated short-range communications to enable vehicles to talk to each other and to talk to the infrastructure,” Poorsartep says. “By means of that, you’ll be able to create applications that can address safety, mobility and environmental issues.”
For example, vehicle-to-vehicle communications have the potential to stop 81 percent of unimpaired driver-related accidents, he says. “Basically, every connected vehicle sends out a message saying, ‘Here I am. Here I am.’ If you know where the other vehicles are, you can avoid different accident scenarios, such as forward collisions involving emergency braking.”
Real-time data advantages
Connected vehicles will also provide information on traffic conditions, allowing drivers to alter their routes and reduce travel delays, which saves time, burns less fuel and, therefore, emits less CO2 into the air.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and numerous local government agencies and other groups are already working together to collect real-time traffic data through closed-circuit television cameras, roadway sensors and other monitoring capabilities, says Edwin Tatum, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of Michigan (ITS Michigan). The state’s numerous intelligent-transportation centers analyze that data and use it to alter traffic-signal timing, or to disseminate the information through the electronic signs common on many freeways.
“This data, combined with information collected from regional weather stations, will help the drivers of connected vehicles both to navigate roads in congested urban regions and to travel more safely when conditions outside are poor,” Tatum says. When it is combined with roadside connected-vehicle equipment, such as the units installed along Telegraph Road in Oakland County, MI, drivers will have a wealth of information at their fingertips, he says.
“One interesting application is called SPaT, which is Signal Phasing and Timing,” Poorsartep says. It tells drivers how long they have to catch the green light at an approaching intersection. By knowing the signal timing, a driver can adjust his or her speed to travel between intersections with less braking and accelerating. Telegraph Road has SPaT-equipped intersections.
Leading the way
“Michigan is at the forefront of connected-vehicle technology,”
Poorsartep says. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation used 21st Century Jobs Fund monies to start the Connected Vehicle Proving Center in 2008, and that center is not only providing comprehensive testing and evaluation of the technology, he notes, but is also receiving sponsored research projects for auto manufacturers, suppliers, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), the Department of Defense and other stakeholders of this technology.
Beyond the center, Michigan is home to the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership (CAMP), a cooperative research organization made up of eight leading car manufacturers. The U.S. DOT contracted with CAMP to operate Safety Pilot Driver Clinics that will provide data on how drivers respond to connected-vehicle technology. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute is running the U.S. DOT’s Safety Pilot Model Deployment, which is a trial that is collecting performance and other data from 2,800 cars in the Ann Arbor area that have been fitted with connected-vehicle communication devices.
All of the data collected will go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which will decide the future of connected vehicles in late 2013 or early 2014, Poorsartep says. “If they decide that this technology works and that there is benefit in deploying it and making it accessible to the public, they may initiate a rule-making process, which will take up to three years.”
Companies focused on connected vehicles
As the process continues, numerous companies are already jumping into the connected-vehicle realm. One is Cisco, a global corporation with Michigan offices in Southfield and Grand Rapids.
Cisco’s approach is to provide an end-to-end IP-based platform, from the vehicle to the cloud. (IP refers to Internet protocol, the principal networking architecture used in communications.) Cisco’s IOS network operating system is already a staple in the business world, and now the company hopes to become the underlying network operating system for connected vehicles, according to Helder Antunes, managing director for the Smart Connected Vehicle Initiative, which is part of Cisco’s Connected Industries Business Unit.
Between consumer demands for infotainment, automaker desires for remote diagnostics and prognostics on their vehicles, numerous new wireless apps, features and services, and now the forecasted requirements of the connected-vehicle environment, the automobile is evolving into a fully networked data center that necessitates a secure and ubiquitous connection to the cloud, according to Antunes.
The Cisco IOS, which is the world’s most deployed network operating system, is ready to take on that job, Antunes says. “With this rapidly changing environment of multiple services, and applications flowing in and out of cars, and the complexity that will be required to route or manage and properly classify and secure those packages, we think that as a company we’re very well positioned to provide that networking operating system.” To that end, the company has been working with car companies, with tier-one suppliers, with service providers, with so-called “ecosystem partners,” such as the insurance, toll-payment and smart-parking companies, and with Intelligent Transportation Society people in North America and Europe to understand the standards for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, he says. In March, the Federal Highway Administration announced that Cisco was one of the firms selected to provide roadside vehicle-communication equipment as part of its Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program.
While the new apps and services, such as pay-as-you-go tolls, may get the attention, it is the underlying network infrastructure that ultimately supports them, Antunes says. “We are that intelligent network on which all of these apps, features and services can run.”
The potential of connected vehicles has also drawn the attention of the architecture, engineering and planning services firm HNTB, which has been working on connected-vehicle projects for almost a decade, according to Matthew Junak, a transportation engineer at HNTB Michigan Inc. in East Lansing. Overall, HNTB is involved in the planning, systems engineering, design, integration and testing aspects of ITS projects across the country. Many of these projects have ties to connected vehicles.
Since 2004, the company has been working with MDOT, the Road Commission for Oakland County, the City of Detroit and others on connected-vehicle projects. For instance, HNTB helped to design and build one of the first connected-vehicle test beds, which is located in Oakland County; deployed live, on-road, connected-vehicle demonstrations at the 2008 and 2009 ITS Michigan conferences; and in 2010, worked on the team that debuted a connected-vehicle simulator at the ITS Michigan conference, Junak says. Currently, the company is participating in two connected-vehicle pilot programs in Michigan, one focusing on safety applications and the other focusing on commercial vehicle applications.
“It’s become very evident that Michigan is central to connected-vehicle technology, and HNTB is excited to be a part of it,” says Junak. “The current pilot projects in Michigan will have a direct impact on the NHTSA regulatory decision in 2013.”
As the interest in connected vehicles continues to rise, says Poorsartep, Michigan companies stand to benefit. “Michigan is really in a great position to lead the industry in connected-vehicle technology.”
Spotlight on: The process of Advanced Manufacturing
Of all of the innovations coming at a furious pace in the auto industry, some of the least heralded but most important are on the process side: the making of the product rather than the product itself, according to David Cole, chairman and co-founder of AutoHarvest Foundation, a nonprofit e-collaboration marketplace for intellectual property in the area of advanced manufacturing.
A major shift over the past few years has been new software tools to improve the process, both during and after manufacturing. Those improvements can amount to huge savings, because the most significant costs in the auto industry are in the manufacturing process, he says.
Seeing the possibilities
Many of the advanced-process companies are located in Michigan. For example, says Cole, “There’s a company in Ann Arbor called Coherix that has an ability to measure surfaces very accurately and without touching the surface. That permits the machining of various parts of the power train, for instance, and has implications for quality and production rate.”
Coherix, which started up in 2004, provides machine-vision products to auto manufacturers, as well as to semiconductor and electronics manufacturers. “Our products allow them to see their process performance in three dimensions at the micron level,” says Dwight Carlson, CEO of the company.
“Coherix serves the global auto industry in two functional areas. First we assist companies to make good parts through our proprietary, high-definition, high-speed measuring capabilities, including our 3-D holographic technology called 3D ShaPix,” says Carlson. Further down the process, where the parts are actually put together, we supply a completely different technology that we call Tru3D. We do very high-speed, inline assembly verification through our dynamic projection 3-D technology platform,” he says. The company also has a dynamic wave technology platform that yields high-definition, micron-level views that are used by advanced battery and advanced fuel-cell manufacturers.
“All three of these platforms help companies reduce variation, which reduces costs, improves quality and shortens the time to get a new product to the market,” says Carlson.
Sifting through the clutter
Another way to improve the process is to take the massive amount of data that is typical of manufacturing operations and convert it into useful information that leads to tangible improvements, Cole says.
Several Michigan companies are taking on that challenge, including Ubiquiti of Ann Arbor. It offers software that sifts through that mother lode of data, finds patterns and puts valuable information into the hands of the people who can actually use it.
One of Ubiquiti’s products provides a direct way for automaker engineers to tap the incredible amount of data generated by warranty or post-warranty repairs, including the accounts written by repair technicians at the garage, says Nandit Soparkar, business and technical development coordinator at Ubiquiti. “It’s very time-consuming to go through these narratives manually, especially considering that a major automaker can generate 250,000 to 300,000 such records on a daily basis. Our software can extract information from text automatically and at a vey rapid speed.”
In addition, the software is designed so that an engineer or other end-user can directly request the information and have it in a matter of minutes. Soparkar says this contrasts with standard operating procedure today, in which an end-user puts in a request to their company’s information technology division and then waits four or five days for the information to arrive.
Another of the company’s products handles data mining, sorting through enormous, sometimes global data sets to find patterns and outliers. “We can therefore pick up a peculiarity or problem that might otherwise be missed,” says Soparkar. As an example, he describes how the software has been used to identify the fix for continued blown fuses occurring in a particular make and model of car. “We ran the data through the software and were able to find that it was happening very often in cases where the car also had a windshield leak, and in states and during months that experienced rainfall. That suggested that the likely cause of the fuses blowing was water seeping into the fuse.”
The company also has software that goes a bit further. If a user enters a car’s symptoms, he says, the software can scan the collected data for similar symptoms in that type of vehicle and report back with probable diagnoses, usually in less than a second.
Troy-based Altair Engineering Inc. has software that takes a different tack: It allows automakers to simulate and optimize the design of new products before they ever make the first prototype.
The traditional way to build new vehicles was to do basic design work, construct a prototype, test that prototype’s performance and return to the design phase to modify it. This process could repeat multiple times before the prototype was finally acceptable. “That was fine 20 to 30 years ago, because you didn’t have to come up with a new product every three to five years,” says Simone Bonino, marketing director at Altair. “Today, however, you have to continue improving the quality of your product and be innovative if you really want to succeed.”
Altair’s simulation and optimization software platform, called HyperWorks, makes the process much more efficient, he says. The software platform includes a wide array of tools for such tasks as analyzing noise and vibration, checking structural stress levels, simulating crash performance and using composite materials to the best advantage. “HyperWorks tools reduce development time, because once you reach the testing phase, you already have a very well-performing vehicle prototype,” Bonino says. “This approach can really help our customers to be innovative.”
More manufacturing resources
Other Michigan companies have their own software offerings. For instance, AIM Computer Solutions Inc., which is headquartered in Fraser, offers its AIM Vision software line to help tier-two suppliers make sure they stay on top of three things:
• scheduling, so they can keep track of all orders/releases, including blanket orders that often demand delivery of goods on a varying schedule;
• capacity, so they can make sure they have an adequate workforce at the ready and sufficient machine time available to produce the goods; and
• materials replenishment, so they can give their own suppliers enough lead time to deliver the raw materials they need for fabrication of their products.
“These three processes of scheduling, capacity and materials replenishment all work hand in hand,” says Jerry Czernel, vice president of operations. “A supplier needs help with these processes to be a lean business.” Without an automated system in place, tier-two suppliers can easily fall behind, especially when they get an order with a fast turnaround, or have some other unforeseen issue, such as a machine problem or unplanned personnel shortage. “Our AIM Vision software not only handles the workflow, which is schedule-driven, but it also flags any unexpected changes in demand, replenishment or capacity, so the company isn’t blindsided.” At the same time, it helps the company maintain better relationships with its suppliers, who can also then be alerted about changes as early as possible so they can make the appropriate adjustments.
In addition to its software, AIM Computer Solutions takes on a bit of an educational role, Czernel says. “Part of our job is to help our companies break down departmental silos where they’re suboptimized.” For example, a company may have a great EDI (electronic data interchange) department that is on top of incoming orders/releases. “That’s great, but if they don’t faithfully and accurately transmit that information to other people downstream, so that they can adequately plan for capacity, update their shop calendar and order raw materials, it really doesn’t matter.”
He adds, “What our job is, and what our software promotes, is thinking horizontally so that is accomplished automatically.”
Coherix, Ubiquiti, Altair Engineering and AIM Computer Solutions are just a few examples of companies with innovative technologies useful for manufacturing-related processes, Cole says. “This is a big area, and a huge issue, so when we think about innovation, it’s important that we don’t just think about the product, but also think of the process of making that product.”