The age of digital manufacturing is dawning on the auto industry, and Delmia Corp. has opened its new North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI, to nudge the transformation along.

Delmia, a wholly owned subsidiary of French 3D-modeling software giant Dassault Systemes, positions itself alongside Tecnomatix Technologies Inc. and EDS PLM Solutions in the emerging sector of digital manufacturing. The tools allow auto makers and suppliers to design, lay out and validate complete manufacturing environments without ever having to move machinery.

The auto industry can reduce by 40% the amount of time necessary to set up and prove out an assembly process by using the software, says Philippe Charles, Delmia CEO.

Talk of digitally simulating an assembly line is not new, but it has taken years for auto makers to embrace the technology.

Delmia reports that the Mercedes-Benz unit of DaimlerChrysler AG will digitally verify the production of all new vehicles beginning in 2005. In North America, the Chrysler Group, whose headquarters are directly across the street from Delmia's, also is buying in to digital manufacturing, but the auto maker has not stated the same 2005 deadline as its corporate sibling, Mercedes.

The digital manufacturing technology is not restricted to greenfield plants; it also works in reconfiguring existing manufacturing facilities for new products, Charles says.

Delmia has occupied its new Auburn Hills headquarters since February. Some 160 employees work there, including software engineers, with room for expansion.

Besides DaimlerChrysler, Delmia's other automotive customers are General Motors Corp., Audi AG and Toyota Motor Corp. Toyota has been the most aggressive in adopting digital manufacturing, Charles says. Toyota has used the software to reconfigure nearly half of its Japanese and U.S. plants since 1999.

Just last month, Audi, the luxury division of Volkswagen AG, announced it will use Delmia's Process Engineer software to minimize the guesswork in reconfiguring vehicle assembly at its Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm plants in Germany. The software helps auto makers identify process risks — and avoid costly mistakes — at the conceptual product design phase. Using the tool, Audi expects a precise overview of the required costs, production space and manpower at an early stage, shortening time to market.

Audi says it will use Process Engineer at more than 100 work stations across multiple departments as part of a strategy to further link product development with process planning. Delmia also will help Audi with its manufacturing mission: No more physical cars without digital validation.

If all goes well, the luxury marque says it intends to use more Delmia products to achieve complete virtual validaton of all manufacturing processes, from initial concept through production. Audi may extend the software to additional manufacturing areas, including the paint shop.

In the coming years, Delmia says a growing number of suppliers will apply the digital tools to component manufacturing, and other OEMs plan to use them to reconfigure paint shops and for assembly of powertrain, body-in-white and full vehicles.

In an attempt to quantify the cost savings associated with digital manufacturing, Delmia commissioned a study from consulting firm CIMdata Inc. of Ann Arbor. The study included Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, Visteon Corp. and Delphi Corp., which have employed Delmia's software tools.

CIMdata reports the initial investment for digital manufacturing software is about $200,000 for a small program and up to $10 million for a large one, with subsequent annual investments of about the same amounts. The study found that annual savings, however, amount to $1 million for the small program and up to $100 million for the large program, according to Stanley Przybylinski, senior consultant at CIMdata.

Despite the promise, Przybylinski says most auto makers are just getting started in implementing digital manufacturing, and most have not yet seen such returns on investment. “But they're hitting their targets, and they are getting the benefits they expected,” he says.