Mazda turns to more virtual engineering to cut prototype costs

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Hitomi: Started from necessity

TOKIO – Mazda Motor Corp lowers its dependence on prototypes of physical vehicles and instead turns to virtual engineering in an urgent attempt to remain competitive.

The strategy, model-based development, will take the lead in the Mazda campaign to cut costs, accelerate throughput times and save limited resources where they are most needed.

Managing Executive Officer Mitsuo Hitomi said the move will help Mazda juggle with the enormous complexity of new technologies with a small budget.

He said that 95 percent of the time-consuming calibration work on Mazda's next-generation vehicles will be digital on a desktop, rather than the traditional way of trial and error against pricey prototypes.

Today it uses desktop modeling for about 75 percent of its development work and relies on just 25 percent of the work in 2007.

"We have to expand this kind of approach," Hitomi said last week on a technology briefing. "There is no model, engine or transmission to which we have not applied this model."

Mazda, a relatively small player on the world stage, could not have developed his upcoming Skyactiv X powertrain without the approach, he said.

Nor could it be daunting to address a threatening to-do list, even for a car maker twice Mazda's size. By 2021 Mazda will introduce a plug-in hybrid, a new diesel engine, an electric vehicle, a connected-car system, automated driving function and a new body and chassis architecture.

For one of the smallest car manufacturers in Japan, with a r & d budget of one-tenth of Toyota's size, Mazda is developing models-based credits to keep up with the pace.

"It's really terrible because the amount of validation work has increased exponentially," said Tomohiko Adachi, Mazda's Senior Principal Engineer for Integrated Control Systems. "But after 2019 we will introduce all these things, so we will stimulate our business."

The "model" in model-based development refers to mathematical models, not to vehicle name plates. The use of computers to design and test complex components or vehicle systems relieves the company from making physical prototypes. It can save money, time and energy.

Mazda is not the only one that focuses on model-based development. German car manufacturers have also used the approach. But Mazda believes it's the head of the pack. The Japanese car manufacturer pioneered the strategy out of necessity in 2004, Hitomi said.

Mazda then balanced on the edge of the bankruptcy. It resorted to modeling to maximize its limited resources.

But the approach also enabled Mazda to develop the first generation of Skyactiv engines, transmissions and platforms currently in use in its cars.

"Because we were so tied up for money, we have progressed in this area," Hitomi said.

The approach is not without shortcomings. It may take up to three days to model exactly the movement of a piston, Hitomi said. And engineers have still not found a good way to translate the behavior of rubber into a model format.

But Mazda is expanding its use as much as possible and plans to use it for upcoming electrification projects, an area where automakers are pressured to quickly fill complete line-ups with newfangled battery power.

Mazda encourages partner companies, suppliers and universities in Japan to also follow the approach to improve efficiency. It also cooperates with the powerful Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan to promote model-based development.

"The advantages of model-based development," Hitomi said, "must be communicated."