Though 95% of its vehicles are still assembled manually, the maker of the world's fastest cars has been quick to realise that hand and brain are no longer enough in the drawing office.
The mouthwatering apple-green Diablo roadster in Lamborghini's factory showroom looks more like a vehicle for flying to Mars than popping to the supermarket in. The sleek profile is unmistakably Lamborghini - "positively pornographic" as one onlooker put it - yet there is a subtle difference in the pedigree of the company's latest space-age machine. Unlike its predecessors, the Diablo has a body, chassis, engine, and gearbox designed on computer.
Since its inception in 1963, Lamborghini has prided itself on hand-crafting. Even today, 95% of the assembly is done manually. Unlike its arch-rival Ferrari, Lamborghini won't allow a robot through the factory gate. But times are tough in the market for exclusive cars, and the Diablo's design team can resist computers no longer. You can keep them off the factory floor, but you cannot keep them out of the drawing office, says Luigi Marmiroli, the company's technical director. "It is impossible today to design and build anything without computers. You need your hand and brain too, but they are no longer enough."
It was in 1989 that Lamborghini acquired a batch of desk-top design work stations from Control Data (CD). The design process is never one-off; there are always alterations, says Marmiroli. In addition to technical fine-tuning, adjustments are necessary to ensure vehicles conform to technical regulations and emission laws in different countries. "The greatest bonus of the computer is the number of design changes it allows in a short space of time." Not only does this slash the number of machine-tool changes, it also speeds up the time to market.
Lamborghini is not the only manufacturer to have mobilised computers for design. Development has overtaken production and distribution to become the main target for reform during the 1990s, says Erik Keller, a manufacturing consultant with the Gartner Group, a US consultancy. The traditional approach has been to design products in isolation, so that problems only emerge during manufacture, testing, distribution or support. Manufacturers are abandoning this approach in favour of so-called concurrent engineering, whereby development teams collaborate electronically to ensure all aspects of product development are considered at every stage.
Among the on-screen techniques in use at Lamborghini are finite-element analysis and three-dimensional modelling. Engineers can simulate structural test to highlight how the vehicles perform under varying loads, and to examine displacement, rigidity and torsion. They can look at the pressure on all the suspension components, so that they know where to add strength before building a prototype.
For every design change, the computer automatically triggers all consequent alterations in the manufacturing process. For example, if a valve needs to be made of a slightly stronger alloy, the shapes may stay the same, but you might need to slow the cutting tools and make sure all the other processes take this time-delay into account. "In the past, you guessed, and the company that was best at guessing got ahead," Marmiroli says. Computers have made it a precision science. Yet Marmiroli does not see electronics as a panacea. "A computer is nothing more than a powerful pencil - you can draw extremely clever pictures with it, but it can do nothing on its own. The ideas and innovation have to come from you."
Lamborghini has got its priorities right, according to the experts. In the UK, technology is too often seen as a solution in itself, says Tom Butler, MD of the manufacturing division of EDS-Scicon, a software systems house. The idea that computers provide competitive advantage is a myth being put around by many suppliers, he says. "Competitive advantage comes from a business's ability to differentiate its products or services in the market. IT merely helps implement the strategy."
In the UK, companies tend to focus on the factory, without it looking at the whole business. "UK companies are past masters of using information systems to control and monitor totally inefficient work processes. They are too fixated on speeds, feeds and times to change tooling." The very phrase computers in manufacturing (CIM) creates confusion, Butler says. "CIM is a red-herring. We're hooked on what hardware and software people have got. This is irrelevant." The real solution is to examine the work processes needed to carry out a particular task and cut cut waste. Only then should you think about computerisation. It's no good just looking at production, says Butler.
Experts, at Lucas Engineering and Systems agree. They are worried that British manufacturing companies may be investing in computers too fast. Lucas, which runs an IT consultancy service, has found that many manufacturers which have installed computer systems still suffer performance problems - because business and management processes were not simplified first. In today's global market, UK companies must measure themselves against the best in the world. According to Lucas, the average Japanese manufacturer has sales per employee twice that of its UK counterpart, and three times the stock turnover. Japanese production costs are 30% less and new products are developed twice as fast. Japanese workers are superb at communicating and developing relationships in work groups. In the UK, piecemeal installation of technology has only served to widen the communications gap.
The goal is fully-integrated manufacturing throughout the innovation chain from design concept, through supply of raw materials, to customer delivery. Once products are in manufacture, computers can provide early warning when things go wrong. Statistical process control, scheduling, and regular analysis of the production data make it possible to solve problems in process rather than to address defects at the end of the day. But to achieve this level of integration, numerical data associated with the components side of the business must be combined with the tex-based systems used in manufacturing processes. This often means linking incompatible computers, says Ian Haynes, manufacturing marketing manager at CD. The opportunity for vendors, he says, is less in selling systems than in making existing machines work together.
Tough economic conditions, combined with poor rewards from existing expenditure, are making UK manufacturers slow to invest. Although standardised hardware running off-the-shelf software offers potential savings of 30%-40%, companies are not convinced.
AT Lamborghini, Marmiroli is happy to wait for his technology. For the next five years, wind-tunnels will have to suffice for his aerodynamic test. Computer simulation software is still too new and expensive. As for the Diablo roadster in the factory showroom, that is just a prototype. Its purpose was to show senior management what an open-topped version of the car would look like, to win their approval and get the go-ahead for production next year. Why not stimulate the whole thing on a computer screen and save painstaking hours of labour? The problem is a human one, says Marmiroli. The board members want something they can look at, touch and feel. They would never give the production go ahead for a "dream machine" that they had seen only in simulation. Nothing on a computer replaces the real thing.
For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 4134336.