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By John Marchant, March 7, 2012
In 1990, “The Machine That Changed the World.” detailed Toyota's rise to the #1 car maker. More than 20 years later, a more timely subject could be entitled "The World That Changed the Machine.” Plenty has been written on theories of peak oil, climate change, energy efficiency, and resource scarcity. As controversial as these topics may be, the debates nevertheless are informing and influencing some of the ways in which we think and act. The motor industry, for instance, is a large, resource-hungry industry, and so comes into the spotlight. It’s not surprising that alternative approaches to vehicle design, manufacture, and distribution are emerging first from small-fry firms -- we have to start somewhere. But how do these emerging alternatives become mainstream; can they cross Geoffrey Moore’s famous chasm theory, in “moving from breakthrough idea to market leading reality?”
Car design firm Local Motors is playing its part. As they put it, they are “enabling the making of game-changing cars with an unprecedented level of community interaction.” This is car design and manufacture by crowd-sourcing, delivering what people want, and not what the car companies think you want to have.
Related to Local Motors is The Forge, a “co-creation community, the world’s first community of car designers.” They are being driven (no pun intended!) by the X-Prize Foundation and its “large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prize competitions that stimulate investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself.”
One X-Prize winner was Virginia-based automotive innovation company Edison2, who in September, 2010 received the $5 million prize in the Mainstream Class. They won for their lightweight, low aerodynamic-drag, four-passenger vehicle design that travels 200 miles on a charge – all while meeting stringent performance, handling, and emissions standards. It achieves more than 100 miles per US gallon gasoline equivalent – MPGe.
Edison2’s chief of design Ron Mathis explains: “We are a startup company with big ideas. We simply try to design cars that use less energy to design, manufacture, own, and recycle.”
“What distinguishes us from others is that we use regular mainstream materials, economical materials that do not require a huge investment or costly end-of-life recycling,” he continues. “We are building a car that needs a minimum investment in tooling, and that makes it viable in many markets.” Quoting an example, Mathis says, “Think of us as an enabling technology for a bunch of other here-and-now technologies. Our electric car has a 100-mile range and can be charged overnight from a domestic [North American] 110-volt wall socket. We’ve achieved this using batteries and controllers bought from on-line catalogues. The trick is in the efficiency of our cars, and we feel we are world leaders in that.”
Since the car is structurally different from ordinary cars, a lot of possibilities open up as how to absorb and deflect collisions not open to mass-produced “square box” car manufacturers. The team is set on proving that light cars can be safe by changing the way they react in collisions. Further, they’ve created a car less likely to get into a crash in the first place.
This is possible because the primary virtues of the car’s design: wide track, low center of gravity, and excellent suspension. Mathis again: “Our very first prototypes scored the highest in every dynamic safety test in the X-Prize, with practically no development. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s demanding 40%-offset 40-mph impact test, the car behaved almost exactly as we predicted, in that it tends to deflect away from collision. We are absolutely delighted with the test results in the computer and with an actual car, bearing out the position we have adopted.”
It is one thing, though, to have a great idea. It’s another to translate the idea in a finished product. Here the big automotive companies have the advantage – or had. Big car makers could afford to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars it cost to acquire software to help them design, manufacture, assemble, and even market their cars. There is no way that start-ups like Edison2 can contemplate this level of investment. In fact, they no longer need to. Siemens PLM Software has begun to work closely with Local Motors to make mid-range CAD/PLM software Solid Edge easily available by making it affordable. Indeed, it is Solid Edge on which Edison2 has come to rely to get their ideas into production.
Mathis takes up the story, “I’m a child of the drawing board, really, which means that I always had to be able to imagine what a real part would look like from a paper drawing. I’m an old dog and Solid Edge is very much a new trick. But now I find I can do everything I need to do in Solid Edge. A competent engineer does not have to be an absolute screaming Solid Edge whiz to be able to do good stuff,” he adds. “In fact, I did the whole suspension myself in Solid Edge.”
According to Mathis, synchronous technology is the key to his success in using Solid Edge. “The ability to move stuff around, to drag features and change stuff on the fly is extremely powerful,” he says. “If you ever tried modifying something that is a long way back in the history tree in traditional design software, you may well have seen the part’s definition blow up completely. Repairing a part after you make an edit gets very time consuming. These problems go away completely with synchronous technology. This is one of Solid Edge’s most powerful capabilities; it never blows up on you.”
“Solid Edge makes it possible for a company like us to take on a project like this,” Mathis concludes. “Some of the stuff we do now in a couple of seconds used to take a couple of weeks on the drafting board. It’s worth anybody’s time and trouble to learn how to use Solid Edge well because of the possibilities that it opens up.”
Where next for Edison2? According to director of research and development Brad Jaeger, the company’s expertise is in design, and that’s how they want it to stay. “This is why we are continuing to refine the vehicle, taking the experience we gained from our X-Prize prototype to create a vehicle that people will want to buy: capable of carrying luggage, shopping, carrying passengers, and so on.”
To do all this, however, the company needs interest from commercial backers, Jaeger acknowledges. “We know how difficult an endeavor it is to be a small start-up in the automotive business, and so we don’t want to try to be the manufacturer. This is why we are continuing to build relationships with companies who want to license the technology, or to form a joint venture.”
“If we can get the right level of commercial backing to grow the company,” Jaeger concludes, “then we will use Solid Edge Insight for data management, enabling a growing number of engineers and designers to work collaboratively, and keeping the business organized. Who knows: at some point, we may even have to go beyond that to Teamcenter itself.”
A qualified mechanical, electrical and electronic engineer with considerable experience of selling hardware, software and solutions into the manufacturing and process industries, central and local government, MoD and commerce. formerly MCAD Sales Development Manager Autodesk UK, Sales Manager Manufacturing Industry Intergraph UK and IT Systems Sales Manager Ferranti Computer Systems Limited.