Driving Results

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2006-06-07 Print this article Print

The company, which fields six NASCAR teams, turned to product life-cycle management software to improve performance and reliability of its race cars.

Driving Results

Other industries besides auto racing are big users of product life-cycle management technology. It typically consists of a suite of several applications, including computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and product data management (PDM). It also features a broader component—product life-cycle tracking, which monitors a product from conception to end-of-life. PLM is most popular with automobile manufacturers, heavy-equipment companies, aerospace firms and other businesses that build complex products and experience frequent engineering changes.

Hendrick had begun using UGS' CAD software in 1997 to create parts. CAD programs are used to create three-dimensional drawings of parts. The engineering drawings and specifications are transmitted to the firm's eight Haas Automation computer numeric code (CNC) machining centers, which manufacture the parts.

At the time, "We had some small databases that linked which engines were used at what races," Wall says. "We also had a work-order system and an inventory system. But we never could organize it. What's worse, it was all in different formats."

In 2004, Hendrick got its engine and performance information aggregated on the UGS Teamcenter platform.

That's important for the racing enterprise, because engineers need to quickly put their hands on engine performance, history, and part failure and replacement information. "For us, the product data is our internal design and performance data, as well as the vehicle setup and engine configuration information," Wall says.

Its CAD designs, including 3D models of engines and parts, take up 50 gigabytes of data, while an additional 24 gigabytes are needed for the company's engine test data, documentation and inventory. Each day, the company backs up 1 terabyte of data.

An almost exclusively IBM shop, Hendrick utilizes Big Blue's servers, desktop machines and laptops. The only non-IBM hardware in evidence are Panasonic Toughbook laptops used by field engineers who travel from race to race. At the racetrack, the engineers use a Web browser to tap into Hendrick's network.

"If there is a part failure, they can make a problem report with a basic text description and link it to the part number," Wall explains. "They can then submit the problem report into a workflow in the PLM and distribute it to the engine department here at our home base so we can get started on it."

Once an engine component has been found to have a vulnerability that may lead to premature failure, the engine team replaces that unit in all the cars before they end up in the pit with an identical failure. By keeping meticulous records of how much every last bolt is torqued on each cylinder head, Hendrick knows exactly which components are due for replacement. "Engine-use tracking is critical for us," Wall adds.

PLM has enabled Hendrick to more efficiently solve its production problems. Engineers can immediately access critical engine data to redesign parts and speed engine rebuilds.

The software has also allowed Hendrick to improve business processes by forcing it to eliminate wasteful steps. This is a big leap from the early days of NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s, when a bunch of drivers and some "shade-tree mechanics" got together, hopped up a stock car and went racing.

"We used to spend 40% of our time just looking for data. PLM is giving us an advantage by getting all this information into one location so we can manage it," McKenzie says.

Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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