The current crisis has cast a long shadow on the outlook for physical retail in the future. Vehicle manufacturers will need to re-evaluate both how they sell their vehicles (to account for social distancing), and the entire vehicle design, manufacture, marketing, sales and maintenance value chain. In particular, automotive manufacturers need to take advantage of the latest digital technologies to accommodate changes in the workplace, to support new business models and to achieve the new scales of efficiency required to operate in this changing future.
The automotive industry has undergone significant change in its history. Yet, through all this change, the consumer experience of purchasing a car is a longstanding tradition that has remained largely unchanged for several decades. Customers visit a showroom, test drive several vehicles and, ultimately, engage in negotiations over price and financing details before they make a purchase.
Today, changing customer demands and the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic are causing a shift in how vehicles are sold. Some of the more progressive manufacturers are already pushing back on the traditional model and replacing sprawling and expensive retail sites with smaller, digital-based outlets. These shops, often based in shopping malls or temporary pop-up shops, contain only a few vehicles that are augmented with digital experiences to bridge the gap between online and physical stores. The most progressive manufacturers, such as Tesla, go one better and offer pre-orders online before the vehicle design and manufacturing is finished. What consumers experience in these digitally enhanced experiences, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Furthermore, across industries, customer demands for premium features and innovative products are growing. At the same time, the expected time-to-market for new products is dropping quickly, driving manufacturers to find ways to accelerate product development and continually push the limits of their processes.
Building a digital platform for vehicle developmentMeeting these new market demands requires a robust foundation of digital design and manufacturing technologies. Automotive manufacturers must adopt the latest design and manufacturing technologies that allow engineers to digitally simulate almost every aspect of a vehicle’s journey through design, production, marketing, sales and maintenance, before any physical evidence of the car exists. This virtual copy of the vehicle is known as the digital twin, which digitally captures every facet of vehicle design, performance, manufacturing, and the instructions for post-delivery servicing. The digital twin ensures that data remains consistent, accurate and accessible throughout vehicle development.
That this can be achieved is truly impressive, especially when considering the overwhelming complexity of vehicles today. Cars used to be simple. Now, they are closer to mobile supercomputers that are stacked with connected infotainment systems, automated or autonomous driving abilities, numerous electrical sub-systems and more to help deliver occupants safely and comfortably. Modern vehicles can also communicate their status and performance back to the manufacturer, informing service departments on needed maintenance and helping to reinforce our vehicles as enablers of experiential lifestyles. Simulating these various systems and their interactions in high fidelity requires advanced engineering software solutions.
Companies like Siemens Digital Industries Software work alongside manufacturers to help their processes cope with increasing demand, complexity and competition through comprehensive digitalisation. Siemens’ integrated portfolio of software and services, known as Xcelerator, enables automotive companies to create digital twins of their vehicles and production processes to design, test and verify them virtually. Across the industry, physical prototyping is being replaced with digital simulation in response to frequent design changes that ripple through the digital thread andrequire all connected systems to be simulated and re-verified.
Automotive manufacturers are also simulating their production processes up front. Manufacturing simulations allow engineers to define the exact order of assembly, precise movements of robotic arms and component positioning, while also ensuring all components can physically fit in the vehicle. Advanced manufacturing simulations can also account for human operators as part of an overall production system. Traditionally, this technology has been used to analyse operator ergonomics. Moving forward, these same capabilities can help companies update production processes to meet social distancing guidelines more quickly.
Connecting the customer to the digital twin
Of course, purchasing a car at home is not as easy as other products, like kitchen appliances. Modern cars are highly configurable, offering lots of options such as the exterior colour and trim, interior comfort and styling and technology packages. As a result, many vehicles are built to order, making returns difficult and uncommon. In addition, appropriate financing must be arranged through an e-commerce platform, rather than in person.
In the end, it is critical that the consumer is confident that their order was received and processed accurately and securely by the manufacturer. No one wants to endure any surprises on delivery of their new vehicle. It is up to the manufacturer to ensure that the customer understands what they are ordering, and receives a vehicle that meets their exact specification.
The digital twin of the product can be used to create innovative and exciting virtual shopping experiences that customers can enjoy remotely. Powerful applications such as Siemens NX and Teamcenter, part of the Xcelerator portfolio, help engineers create and manage highly detailed virtual representations of a vehicle based directly on design data. The manufacturer can use these representations, known as visual twins, to enhance the virtual shopping experience.
Detailed and accurate visuals of the vehicle are one of the most effective means of communicating with the customer. Digital vehicle shopping experiences must use an array of images, covering every conceivable angle of the vehicle, that update based on the options selected by the customer. Such visuals allow customers to compare interior and exterior styling choices, seat configurations and storage to build a vehicle that meets their needs and wishes.
Recent advances in virtual reality (VR) allow companies to take these experiences to the next level. With a smartphone and compatible VR headset, customers can sit inside the visual twin of their future vehicle, making changes to the configuration live from their living room. In the future, manufacturers may also be able to supply visual twins through augmented reality, allowing customers to walk around their vehicles superimposed on their actual driveway.
Indeed, the comprehensive digital twin will also ensure that vehicles are built to match each customer’s specification. Future customers interacting with and configuring the visual twin of their next car will be directly connected to the full engineering and manufacturing process defined by the digital twin. This process will be ready and poised to build the configured vehicle as the order is submitted. Furthermore, a fully digitalised process will allow engineers to review and audit the data to verify its correctness.
Recent events have introduced new challenges to an already dynamic automotive industry. The global pandemic has disrupted the traditional car-buying experience, one of the most enduring facets of the automotive industry. As the rest of the automotive value chain undergoes a digital transformation, from design through manufacturing and service, it’s clear that vehicle sales must evolve as well.
Automotive manufacturers must adopt new technologies today to digitally design, build and sell the vehicles of tomorrow through fully integrated, end-to-end design, manufacturing and sales workflows. Companies like Siemens Digital Industries Software offer solutions and expertise to help these companies achieve such a goal. These technologies will help manufacturers deliver greater choice and quality to the consumer through richer omni-channel purchasing options. Manufacturers that adapt to the new challenges and opportunities we are facing will emerge stronger than ever in the industry of tomorrow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Hutchinson is the product manager for NX Visualisation at Siemens Digital Industries Software. He recently joined the Siemens NX product management team through the acquisition of computer graphics software specialists Lightwork Design where he was Director of Technology and Operations. He holds a PhD in 3D computer graphics, surfacing and animation from the University of Manchester, UK, a master’s degree in computer science, and a bachelor’s degree in physics.