Automotive Firm Deploys Product Lifecycle System, Speeds Development by 30 Percent
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
East and Southern Africa


African automotive company Optimal Energy wanted to replace its eight data management systems with an integrated product lifecycle management (PLM) solution. Employees struggled to access and share data, and collaboration was difficult, especially between people who worked at different locations. To address its challenges, Optimal Energy deployed a PLM solution from Dassault Systèmes. It runs on the Microsoft platform and provides integrated collaboration tools for data management and three-dimensional development and simulation including ENOVIA V6, ENOVIA 3DLive, and CATIA V5. The solution also supports a central, global database that runs on Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and seamless interoperability with Microsoft Office applications. As a result, the company has accelerated development by 30 percent, improved accuracy, cut expenses, and streamlined data access and system administration.

Founded in 2005, Optimal Energy is a privately owned company based in Cape Town, South Africa, that designs and builds electric cars. Its goal is to transform public transportation so that it uses fewer natural resources and less energy. The company’s first product, Joule, will be Africa’s first electric car. It will be available for purchase in Africa and Europe in 2014.

The company’s 100 employees work at two locations. One site serves as the design facility, and the other supports production. Because the company has grown rapidly, employees implemented IT to meet needs as they arose. By 2009, the company had eight distinct data management systems to facilitate product development. Employees used these systems for computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE), and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM)—and also to manage product requirements and materials. Although many of the systems used Microsoft SQL Server data management software, employees lacked a central data store. Instead, project files resided on individual workstations and numerous server computers at the two locations. These decentralized solutions made it difficult to share data, reduced accuracy, impeded project management, and hindered system administration.

For example, because the company used different systems and file formats, employees spent significant time either converting files or re-creating them. This included transferring information between CAD programs and applications such as Microsoft Office Excel 2007 spreadsheet software, Microsoft Office Word 2007, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007 presentation graphics program. In addition, managers could not quickly access detailed, real-time project information and, instead, had to rely on manual processes to collect data. Consequently, project information was sometimes out of date.

Without a central database, employees spent hours each week finding the newest version of specific documents. To help prevent people from either duplicating work or using an older file version, managers strictly partitioned design tasks. Ultimately, however, building a car requires collaboration—especially with third-party vendors who produce parts. Each day, engineers, production personnel, and third-party vendors in Europe had to coordinate the exchange of information. Depending on the size and number of the files that needed to be sent, people used email or File Transfer Protocol (FTP)—a process that could take several hours. In addition, employees and third-party vendors sometimes transported files on a portable hard drive because FTP can pose a security risk and because transferring some data sets, which can be 40 gigabytes in size, takes too long.

As Joule’s development progressed and Optimal Energy continued to grow, delays created by manually sharing files increased. For example, if production personnel found an issue with a part, they often modified the part’s physical and virtual design and then notified engineering. “Data was always out of sync,” says Anton Greeff, Chief Mechanical Engineer at Optimal Energy. “We knew that at any given time, the CAD data we had was at least three or four days out of date compared to the data at the production facility. We had to be very rigorous in following up with phone calls and email messages to ensure that these issues didn’t cause big production delays.”

Because employees at different locations could not work on the same file simultaneously, they sometimes agreed on product changes over the phone—or through email or instant messaging (IM)—even though they were not viewing the same diagrams. As a result, misunderstandings occurred that sometimes led to production errors.

To address these challenges, Optimal Energy decided to implement an integrated product lifecycle management (PLM) solution that provided centralized tools for document management and development including CAD, CAE, and CAM. Optimal Energy sought a solution that was easy to deploy, learn, and scale.

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