Automotive design and engineering could be completely paperless within three years if computer technology and the industry's collective mindset continue to evolve at their current pace.

Advances in computer aided design and engineering (CAD/CAE) already have dramatically changed the way some components and systems are being designed and engineering but experts suggest that as much as 40% of development time for a complete vehicle can be slashed with wider application of CAD/CAE.

Recent examples of time and cost savings generated by CAD/CAE technology include a Ford Explorer rear wiper motor cover designed in six weeks, saving 45% in design costs. A finite-element mesh rendering of a Volvo side mirror was made in two days, and simulated wind-tunnel testing accomplished in another 48 hours. And Ford saved 134 days designing a lightweight lower-suspension control arm with CAE instead of conventional engineering.

Combining the capabilities of surface and solid computer modeling, animation software and powerful computers, the industry can develop vehicles much more cost-effectively than in the past. With this technology designers can style and immediately view a concept in three dimensions, engineers can test every aspect of a vehicle's performance, and manufacturing types can run pre-production assembly and fit tests without building even a single prototype or clay model.

Jeffery A. Rose, general manager of engineering design at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Ann Arbor, MI, technical center, is leery of completely computer-driven designs. Toyota remains flexible on fit tolerances throughout the design and pre-production process so it can make last-minute changes to compensate for variances. "Computer-driven designs will ultimately make cars have greater variations than fitted cars," he says, explaining that certain variables that would have to be factored in on a computer may not exist in reality. That could produce larger gaps on a final product, he believes.

"The design process is changing," says John Baker, product manager for geometric modeling at EDS Unigraphics. "We're changing the critical path of vehicle development. We're removing from the critical path all steps that don't add value."

Among these non-value-added pieces of the current development puzzle are the numerous and costly prototypes built to test individual systems. With state-of-the-art CAD/CAE, each vehicle system can be tested individually and in unison. When a physical prototype is built after a thorough computer shakedown of the design, it will be much closer to the production model.

"The systems of the future will be able to comprehend the effects of multiple variables on the final vehicle," predicts John Howaniek, automotive segment manager at engineering software pioneer SDRC Inc. "Computers will be able to determine the best options in tradeoffs between cost and performance."

Most people involved in developing cutting edge CAD/CAE systems agree that a cultural revolution needs to occur in the industry before full benefits of the technology will be realized. Norman Ludtke knows this better than anyone else. After 45 years in the business, Mr. Ludtke, executive manager of advanced CAE at CDI Computer Services Inc., has seen design and engineering develop from pencil and paper to computer animation.

"Engineers are conservative by nature so they have a tough time being able to accept that something that looks like the real thing is really math data," says Mr. Ludtke. "The major drawback in exploiting this technology is training people how to apply it to solve business problems. It's like future shock." Mr. Baker agrees: "People have to move up the technology ladder as well."

The key to the revolution is digital prototyping, a master three-dimensional database from which photo-realistic data can be reviewed directly on the computer screen or projected onto a full-size screen.

With stereolithography and other rapid prototyping methods, a physical prove-out model can be created using the computer data, but experts say digital prototypes are sufficiently accurate to simulate, analyze and visualize without physical renderings.

Mr. Baker says the true benefit of CAE is giving engineers the opportunity to try different design options without the cost of a full-size physical prototype to see how they look or if they will work. "You'll get more optimal designs that way," he adds.

The aerospace industry was the first to take advantage of computer-aided design and engineering in the 1950s and 1960s. CDI's Mr. Ludtke was at Chrysler Corp. at the time working on the Redstone and Atlas missile programs. "We had the most advanced computer in the Detroit area," he recalls. "It was huge."

Two-dimensional computer-generated wire frame or mesh renderings replaced drafting boards as CAD crept into the auto industry in the late 60s and early '70s. Between 1970 and 1980 surface and solid modeling was introduced, and 3-D CAD wire frames came on the scene in the early '80s. In the last three or four years dramatic visualization and animation appeared.

A view of how fast the use of computers has proliferated lies within General Motors Corp.: In 1988 GM had no CAD/CAM/CAE workstations. Now it has 3,500 EDS seats and a total of 6,500 workstations.

"We now have virtual development," says Tony Affuso, vice president of development & marketing at EDS Unigraphics. "We've made a tremendous leap forward, thanks to billions of dollars in investment by the aerospace and automotive industries and the people who write software."

Despite the development money spent by these two industries, powerful computers, sophisticated software and training still represent a major capital investment. But you get more bang for the buck today compared with a decade ago. Back then $500,000 bought four workstations and a mainframe capable of designing components and small assemblies. Now $400,000 will buy four high-end Silicone Graphics systems, each capable of designing an entire vehicle. "One will do a lot more than the $500,000 unit did then," says Mr. Ludtke. The consensus among experts is that the savings in time and redundant prototypes justifies the cost of hardware and software.

CDI's Visual Engineering Lab in Troy, MI, is an operational facility that doubles as a demonstration of what it calls the paperless Art-to-Part methodology.

Using software from SDRC and other sources, CDI, EDS Unigraphics and similar companies give automakers and suppliers the ability to conduct numerous design and engineering functions on screen.

Ergonomic and visibility studies allow stylists to see various configurations of future models without prototypes. Some programs allow engineers to zoom in and highlight specific areas to look for problems.

On-line predictive engineering tests a design before production, which allows engineers to correct problems early in the design phase. Structural, fatigue, durability, thermal, weight, surface continuity, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), modal and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis all can be done on computer. Crash tests, airbag deployment tests and wind-tunnel tests also can be performed on screen.

Manufacturing engineers can take production assembly documents and convert them to video to show more accurately how components fit together. They also can detect clearance and interference and perform dimensional tolerance analysis.

SDRC's Mr. Howaniecki says three things have to happen before the auto industry can milk the most benefit from the latest in CAD/CAE technology. First, computer power must be boosted three to five times what it is today, which he expects to happen within three years. Secondly, automaker design and manufacturing processes must be adjusted to allow the technology to function, meaning the paper-reliant culture needs to change. Last, the software itself needs to be refined.

These refinements are taking place. Chrysler and Eaton Corp. used a software package called Saber, from Analogy Inc. of Oregon, to help design a new keyless-entry system for the 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The software allowed Chrysler and Eaton engineers to work concurrently. While Eaton engineers developed circuitry, Chrysler engineers characterized the operation of the vehicle's multiplex bus network. Each component on the bus was Saber-simulated to see which variations would occur over temperature and tolerance. Ford and Motorola are using the software to design a new transmission for upcoming vehicles.

This is not just a North American trend. San Jose, CA-based Sherpa Corp. recently won a $1.4 million contract to install a product data-management system at France's Peugeot SA. With this new system, all of PSA's 41 CAD sites in France will be able to share engineering, design and test information.

Mr. Howaniecki says after the technology is in place at automakers, it'll take three to five years for the culture to change enough to not only accept it but to be able to work with it effectively.

"Time-to-market is the Holy Grail of the auto industry," says EDS' MR. Baker, "and time-to-market will continue to be reduced as the amount of computer technology going into the hands of the engineers goes up and the price goes down."