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  1. Technology
November 3, 1995

SHERPA’s OBJECT TECHNOLOGY ACCELERATES AUTOMOBILE DESIGN AT PEUGEOT CITROEN

By CBR Staff Writer

French car manufacturer PSA Peugeot Citroen is to return to North American market, which it gave up as a failure in 1991, by the end of this year, eventhough it reckons it will cost it $4,000m to do so, an exceptionally steep price tag considering that in the 40-odd years PSA imported Peugeot and Citroen cars to North America, it sold a maximum of 20,000 a year in a market that shifts millions. The decision, however, is not final and will depend on whether the company believes that, this time, it can meet the needs of that demanding market, which is very different from Europe. The company has realised that its design and engineering units have to be faster and more flexible, if it is to build a global business, which is the strategic priority chief executive Jacques Calvet laid down two years ago. The company’s development cycle time is longer than its US and Japanese counterparts, but the company said that by the end of the decade it will take it three years to design a car, down from the current four.

VM-based

And to help it achieve that it has installed a $30m distributed technical data management system that is expected to reduce the time to market, yet again, by a hefty 30%. It has been designed to give all of PSA’s 3,500 design and production engineers quicker, easier access to a common view of the data for the car under development, said Pascal Dumoutier, manager of computer-aided design and manufacturing, scientific computing and robotics at PSA’s information technology management group, and manager of the project. The system is based on Sun Microsystems Inc Unix servers running Sherpa Corp’s object-oriented product data management system, which has been laid over Oracle Corp’s Oracle7 database. It replaces a five-year-old, mainframe-based engineering data management system from Computervision Inc, which could not provide either concurrent, or rapid, access, Dumoutier said. Having the VM-based mainframe created a heterogeneous system, since we wanted to use Unix workstations, and it took over 20 conversion steps between a request being sent from a Unix station to the mainframe until the data was returned to the same station. It took a long time – between one and, sometimes, several hours, said Dumoutier. With the new system, Sherpa manages descriptions of more than 500,000 technical objects from a central request database that occupies only 10Mb of the total. The rest of the 600Gb of active data, including stress and crash-simulation files, is stored in binary code in Oracle. As the traffic cop for PSA’s engineers in 43 design centres spread throughout France, Sherpa’s software eliminates the time-consuming conversion problem by storing object descriptions in a neutral format, defined by PSA. The format enables the engineers to use either Computervision’s Cadds and or IBM Corp-Compagnie Marcel Dassault SA’s Catia computer-aided design software to modify or create an object.

By Marsha Johnston

Sherpa also eliminates the problem of reworking designs that were done on an outdated version of the object in question. Although several engineers can get concurrent read access to the same object, Sherpa allows them to modify only objects that have been released, or updated to the database, and approved, said Yves Coze, manager for southern Europe for Sherpa France. The over-riding characteristic of this project is not its complexity, but the volume of data that will be processed and secured with an electronic vault via Sherpa, said Francois Ulff, marketing director for Sherpa France. Indeed, he noted that, once in production, PSA will be Sherpa’s largest site worldwide, followed by Sikorsky Helicopter in the US with 600 workstations. Despite its less-than-convivial user interface, Sherpa was chosen because it can manage all the data from our different design systems and our technology objects concept, Dumoutier said. His team defined these objects to enable PSA to manage its technical data more coherently. For the object that is a piece of sheet-iron, for example, we associate all diagrams, including three-dimensional geometrics, its flexibility elements and simulation results, he said. When we want to process an object, then we have all of its facets, so that when changes are made, they are made throughout the entirety of that object’s life cycle. All of the elements that contribute to improving delays and cost have to be managed, he said. In order to ensure that all the files are available to the engineers, Sherpa also limits their transfer over Peugeot’s 10Mbps TCP/IP network by duplicating them in several sites, said Ulff. You can access a file via a request to the central Sherpa database, which knows how many times a file has been duplicated and what changes have been made, he said, explaining that the system has the intelligence to recognise if a person is requesting a file that is on the user’s local area network and sending that one to the person. Sherpa is very economical in terms of network bandwidth and response time, Ulff said. Development of the system, which PSA began conceiving in October 1993, was completed at the end of June, and Dumoutier’s team is at the pre-production stage, verifying the system’s performance and functions.

Obsolete

It will be rolled out next month and, said Dumoutier, everything should function as expected by New Year’s Eve. Our current system was technically obsolete, so that was the first motivation to change, but it will have the best result on the quality of our products, by improving vehicle design and our manufacturing methods. We will get more productivity out of this system for getting products to market, he said. In fact, taking into acount the impact of the system on operating costs, research delays, access to information and communication costs, the carmaker expects the system to return the investment in 24 months. PSA’s information technology department is already planning functional upgrades to the system for the near future. We’re working on giving geographically distant engineers the ability to work interactively and simultaneously on the same geometric diagram, Dumontier said. Set for trial in 1997, the second-generation system will include sound and images in the database and provide real-time views of changes to design plans. One design engineer, who requested anonymity, said the time from sketch design to starting up factory production for the latest Peugeot model 506 took 208 weeks, or four and a half years, compared with five years for its predecessor. It will be 188 weeks for the 1998 models and we want to get it down to three years. The Sherpa project is part of every stage of that effort, he said.

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