Siemens drives for 20% hike in global output of engine software

Michael Reinfrank has a term he likes to use - "chaotic engineering" - when describing what it takes to get the brains behind the brawn.

The director of powertrain software for Siemens Automotive oversees a team of 400 software engineers who write code for powertrain controllers, and the nature of the business - like the product itself - is a bit nebulous.

"You don't have a clear design, you don't have a point in time where you have design freeze. You don't have quality reviews or a clear software development plan," Mr. Reinfrank says. "This works if you have one or two engineers in a small project over a few months. But today, (programming) the typical powertrain control module takes 10 engineers over three years."

Such demands require a more methodical approach and clear planning, and Siemens' answer to the challenge is a new concept called the "software factory," an initiative Mr. Reinfrank is launching.

The German electronics powerhouse has several facilities around the world producing software for engine and transmission controllers. But those operations have tended to be islands unto themselves, each one specializing in writing certain types of code and not always working in coordination with one another.

That environment is troublesome because software requirements are ever more complex. If printed out, the software code necessary for a typical V-6 powertrain control module today would fill 5,000 sheets of paper (about 50 lines of code per page). The next generation powertrain control module will require about 10,000 sheets.

Siemens' strategy - now a few years old - calls for its software facilities to be less focused on specialties and more dedicated to full-range capabilities. In other words, a homogeneous approach where operations in Regensburg, Germany; Auburn Hills, MI; Ichkon, Korea; and Bangalore, India, can do the same jobs.

Once in place, the facilities can work on 24-hour product development, with code being written in Europe during an eight-hour shift, then handed to North America as those workers start their day. In turn, North American workers can hand off to Asia/Pacific at the end of their work day.

Getting more to Mr. Reinfrank's point about "chaotic engineering," the offices themselves will be reconfigured to resemble actual manufacturing facilities - hence the "software factory" name. The vision calls for an assembly line of sorts, with more structure, more station-to-station flow and a greater emphasis on quality checks and optimized time. The finished product can't be touched - it is a downloadable software module that gets placed on a chip for an electronic controller.

Another new part of the strategy dictates that when the software code is completed, it will be saved in a library so that software designers can access it quickly on future jobs.

Why all the fuss? Because automakers are increasingly finicky when it comes to software. And with the price of software constantly dropping, an inch of efficiency can make a difference in the bottom line.

An engine controller, for instance, has more responsibilities than any other electronic component on a vehicle. It monitors emissions and fuel consumption, regulates heat levels, facilitates a smooth link to the transmission and - perhaps most importantly - sets performance parameters. When the accelerator goes down, the controller manages all engine functions to achieve maximum efficiency.

"Today's control module has 300 control functions compared to an air bag controller, which has just a handful," Mr. Reinfrank says.

And software has evolved rapidly. As he noted earlier, writing code for a powertrain control module now requires three years of work by 10 software engineers. Soon, those 10 engineers will be able to produce four times the amount of engine code over just two years to enable more complex powertrain requirements.

This all spells big improvements in productivity. Siemens won't be downsizing its engineering staff but will be able to limit growth, which is advantageous given the extreme shortage of software engineers. If the software factory strategy reaches full efficiency, Siemens should have to hire 80 fewer software engineers per year.

Mr. Reinfrank estimates that the operations should improve output 20% per year, and that overall savings will be about the same. He expects the strategy to be complete in two years.

Siemens has nine software factories currently (the latest to open is in Timishuara, Romania), with a another soon to launch. One or two more facilities are being considered, perhaps one in the U.S. and one in Asia/Pacific. China and Mexico already have plants because those markets have plenty of available software engineers, Mr. Reinfrank says.

Also driving the strategy is the fact that software "tuning" has emerged as a product differentiator. "The company that is able to be fast and cost efficient and deliver high quality software will have a competitive advantage. That's why we're pushing it."