By: MIT xPRO on March 18th, 2020
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How Has Auto Manufacturing Changed Since “Ford vs. Ferrari”?

Manufacturing | Engineering

In the mid-1960s, Ford Motor Company had an audacious plan: not only to enter the professional car racing circuit, but to defeat Italy’s Ferrari racing powerhouse. To achieve that goal at 24 Hours at LeMans, the most prestigious European endurance race, Ford hired two American racing legends, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. This story is captured in the current Oscar-nominated movie, Ford vs. Ferrari. 

Together, the Shelby/Miles team literally pieced together cars at a frantic pace. In a classic scene from the movie, Phil Remington, Shelby’s chief engineer is seen modifying the trunk lid of GT40 with a hammer and a lot of emotion—to qualify for race day.

This one scene sums up the automotive manufacturing strategy at the dawn of Ford’s racing program—strokes of brilliance captured on paper (maybe) and muscled together in Shelby’s manufacturing shop in southern California. While this strategy proved victorious for the Shelby/Ford team in 1966 when their GT40 MkII defeated Ferrari at LeMans, the merits of on-the-fly, trial by error engineering had tragic consequences.

Spoiler Alert: In the movie, and in real life, Ken Miles was killed less than two months after the LeMans win while test-driving the next-generation Ford J-car, when its weakened honeycomb chassis and unsteady aerodynamics proved fatal.

What might have happened had model-based systems engineering (MBSE) been in place back in the Ford v. Ferrari days?

“The short answer is less trial and error,” says Bruce Cameron, director of the Systems Architecture Lab at MIT, and lead instructor for MIT xPRO’s online Systems Engineering program. In the 1960’s, Ford developed the first race car and handed it to Carroll Shelby for testing and performance improvements. “Compared with the race engineers under Carroll Shelby who often sketched designs on the shop floor, MBSE would have resulted in less prototyping, less trial and error and more analysis upfront, which hopefully would have reduced prototype costs.”

The first two Ford GT40 concept vehicles were produced in a little under eight months. And the designs were radical; standing at just 40.5 inches with a 350 HP 4.2 liter V8 engine hurtling the car along the track. That both cars were unstable is confirmed by the fact that each crashed in the first two days of track testing.

Using MBSE, Ford would have been able to predict that the first concept cars were not aerodynamically feasible. They would have known the honeycomb chassis in Miles’ ill-fated J-car was not strong enough. And, they would have observed that the J-car’s top would have generated too much lift in combination with its lack of a spoiler.

 “Shelby’s shop just was not sophisticated in terms of their ability to model the system before the fact,” says Cameron. Had they invested in MBSE, they would have had a lot more knowledge of these issues that were to come.”

Still, Shelby’s operation was lean, comparatively inexpensive, and very close to production. It could be argued that MBSE would have slowed them down, but it certainly would have led the team to a more predictable, higher-quality, not to mention safer, race car.

The auto industry evolves with MBSE

Since the mid-1960s, the automotive manufacturing industry has obviously become vastly more complex. As cars became more complex, the need to model virtually unlimited parts and their interactions (both mechanically and electronically) is extreme; something Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles were not troubled by back in the day. 

Due to the increase in the number of software-driven systems over time – from the first fuel injectors in the 70s to integrated GPS navigation systems in today’s models – manufacturers increasingly rely on MBSE to keep costs down, manage quality, and more rapidly deliver features consumers want.

“MBSE works for large organizations where there are enormous coordination costs and the potential for big miscommunications,” Cameron explains.  In the automotive industry, MBSE has been instrumental for prototyping and managing quality with innumerable design, testing, and manufacturing strategies:  3D printing of the whole car into smaller models for aerodynamic testing, computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM); sub-assembly units and sub-assembly lines; digital twin prototyping, or the creation of a dynamic digital model.

MBSE Today in the Auto Manufacturing

MBSE is changing how automotive manufacturers operate, across the product lifecycle. Today, Ford is embracing a radical new systems engineering approach because its customers are demanding a higher pace of change, the most in the industry’s history. Like all car manufacturers, Ford’s customers want more intelligent features, increased automation, and new forms of propulsion technologies, such as electric vehicles, and they want these new features implemented faster posing challenges for Ford and other automotive manufacturers.

To meet these challenges, Ford is embracing MBSE practices across the organization to such an extent that the company is changing nearly every aspect of vehicle design, optimization, and production. Under a modular strategy, Ford will design building blocks according to interfaces and compatibility rules and will be reliant on excellent MBSE to ensure that those blocks fit together and work as a car when assembled.

As part of its move to implementing a modular design strategy, Ford has partnered with MIT’s xPRO online learning community. Several hundred Ford engineers working on intelligence features, automation, and propulsion technology and other areas have participated in the MIT xPRO online Systems Engineering program, “Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems.”

 “Engineers who want to keep up should look to Ford as an example of the latest in industry innovation, and follow suit by taking an MIT xPRO program,” says Cameron, who developed the MBSE certificate program and remains a course instructor.

Learn how companies like GM, Boeing, Shell Oil, U.S. Navy, and Whirlpool are using MBSE strategies. Explore MIT xPRO's Systems Engineering program.