How will Covid-19 affect the auto testing sector?

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The impact of the Covid-19 shutdown will not just be felt on production lines, it will totally disrupt testing and development, believes ATTI’s new columnist, John Heider.

I’m writing this column in complete silence at my deserted work office in the midst of the largest shutdown of vehicle production in the global automotive industry since World War II. My home office has four people and a dog running around it. I think I’m in the safest available spot. And hopefully by the time you read this, you and your family have remained safe and our so-called ‘work-life balance’ has returned to more ‘normal’ levels.

Having shutdown periods is a normal and fully expected occurrence for any major car maker. Model changeover periods, elimination of production shifts to meet customer demands and shutdowns due to components shortages happen on a regular basis throughout the industry. Typically, these shutdowns are planned for weeks or months ahead of time and occur in an orderly, predetermined fashion. Vehicles are scheduled, the last unit to be built is identified and the plant and workers cease production at an arranged date and time.  

But we are not in a typical shutdown. Assembly lines are filled with various stages of unfinished vehicles. Just-in-time suppliers are shipping parts only for them to be sitting on the loading dock of idle assembly plants, and all this while sophisticated manufacturing equipment requiring detailed shutdown procedures has also been hastily idled. Shutting down these facilities has been hard, and restarting them quickly will be extremely challenging on many levels.

Although our vehicle development corner of the automotive universe is somewhat removed from the front-line production facilities, a worldwide, forced shutdown period like this brings to light why parts delivery, prototype usage, supplier support and timing schedules are critical elements of the overall vehicle development process.  

Development of prototype vehicles must occur in an orderly, sequential fashion to be efficient and successful. This is true regardless of the attribute under development – be that vehicle dynamics, NVH, powertrain calibration, HVAC performance or other such similar aspects. With ever-shortening development cycles and the number of physical test vehicles constantly under heavy scrutiny, delaying development work to wait for ‘past-due’ tuning parts or the latest vehicle updates is undesirable. Regardless of the attribute or system in question, disruption of the planned process results in inefficient, costly additional development and possibly disappointing performance of the vehicle.

Unlike any ‘normal’ automotive shutdown, a key element of the vehicle development process with this shutdown has been the lack of availability of an engineering expert and his/her laptop. In the most dire emergencies, an engineering mind for any given system or problem could be counted on to hop on an airplane and be on-site within a day to aid testing and development. Who could have imagined this worst-case scenario for support would be eliminated by domestic and international travel restrictions? The current worst-case is now a dynamics engineer plugging into an OBD connector trying to diagnose through multimedia chat with a powertrain engineer why the engine of his prototype won’t run properly, with no guarantee of success.

Clearly, CAE model development can progress as we transition into, and out of, work-from-home requirements. High-fidelity, detailed simulations have done a tremendous job in enhancing the development process. But having said that, at the end of the day, physical parts must be assembled into physical development prototypes to confirm the accuracy of the model. Without reliable and robust parts delivery and supplier support, these prototypes cannot be developed, tested and signed off to result in a saleable vehicle.

Delays of any kind can derail the development process. Independent of the unimaginable recent shutdown and restart of international automotive production, the development process requires a disciplined approach to parts delivery, prototype usage, supplier support and timing schedules. Failure to deliver in any one of these areas will result in a disappointing final production vehicle.

By John Heider

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