Part of the Johnson Electric group, Gate is a leading manufacturer of electric motors and electro-mechanical and electronic components for automotive applications.
Johnson Electric is a Chinese group whose core business is the production of electric motors for different applications, from small motors for power tools and PCs, to bigger models for electric household appliances and automobiles. The group consists of several companies, including Gate S.r.l. (Gate), which collaborates with major automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), including Ford, BMW, Jaguar, Renault, PSA, GM, VW, Fiat, Mercedes and Ferrari, both directly and through manufacturers of radiators onto which the motors are mounted. Gate was established in 1978 as an Italian company and then became an American business in 1985. In 2000, the company was acquired by Johnson Electric.
During this entire time, Gate’s business did not change, although the company did adopt different approaches. “Today, motors are manufactured at the mother company in China based on Gate’s design,” explains Marco Davino, who manages product development engineering and process organization in the company’s Methods and Software Development Division. “Gate acquires the order and is the interface to the customer for all engineering activities, manufacturability checks for new motors, change management and quality control, and cost revision. Then, the Asti factory assembles the motors shipped from China to the fans delivered by suppliers or molded in-house. The assembly stage is essential to guarantee suitable performance and efficiency.”
Gate develops a dozen new products every year and manufactures millions of parts that must pass severe tests in terms of thermal and dynamic stress as well as resistance to moisture and salt spray. “Our product development cycle may take two to three years,” says Davino. “We must satisfy the cooling requirements of each customer with tailored solutions for ventilation, cabling and piping routes. “We aim to optimize performance at electro-magnetic, fluid-dynamic and structural levels, while meeting a suitable price target for a market that is highly sensitive to costs,” Davino says.
At Gate, the most critical stage is the early part of the product development cycle, when most guidelines, timing and costs are defined, and then must be met. “Customers give us very few specifications and demand a feasibility study and proposal on short notice,” Davino explains. “Our initial study is based on experience and on similarities with previous designs, so that we can provide the customer with a pretty accurate feasibility study and estimated cost. When the customer places the order, the actual supply contract is signed, defining scope of supply, volumes, timeline and other aspects.”
Then the process moves on to the second stage, the most important one, which includes design validation tasks to define objects, draw parts, develop molds and geometries, and launch accurate testing to validate different parts. “This process applies to electronic components, plastic materials, objects with complex shapes, and electromagnetic parts,” adds Davino. “We use an iterative test-design process to achieve progressive refinement. When the product meets customer requirements, several samples are also validated aboard the actual vehicle. Finally, manufacturing documents are published, activating the sequence of suppliers, production lines and industrialization that results in the production of the real object, up to final delivery to the customer.”
The process described above requires efficient change management (with changes having different costs according to the lifecycle stage where they are executed) and full traceability of each part, including the ability to trace back to the specific production batch in case of problems in the vehicle. Therefore, Gate cannot do without computer-aided design (CAD) and product lifecycle management (PLM) technologies.
After its initial experience with 2D CAD, the company turned to 3D, adopting NX™ software from Siemens Digital Industries Software. The company chose this CAD solution based on the experience of Pratt & Whitney and McDonnell Douglas, which, at that time, were part of the same industrial group as Gate. After re-training the staff from 2D to 3D and converting the legacy 2D database, Gate extended information technology (IT) to the mechanical workshop, introducing one of the first computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) installations in Italy, with a module still used today. “Most of all,” Davino recalls, “we built up a basic workflow structure with three signature levels, in order to manage and track changes as well as to create a process of authorization, control, verification and approval of files, compliant with the certification system.”
A new phase began in 2001, when Gate decided to publish all documents electronically only, so that they could be easily accessible to all group companies worldwide. “With such an extensive and diversified system, using different CAD packages to meet the requirements of many automotive OEMs, as well as CAM software, workflows and files distributed in electronic format, we needed a quality leap in PLM-driven data management,” Davino says. “We waited until Teamcenter became available because in Teamcenter, we found a solution to all our needs: compatibility with different CAD packages (with file exchange), excellent workflows, international and local codes to link products to enterprise resource planning (ERP), publication of product pictures in PDF format, and much more.”
Teamcenter® software, also from Siemens Digital Industries Software, has been deployed extensively within Gate. Besides change management, this solution has been extended to drafting, including notifications to approve files as well as to make file information accessible through automated publishing features. At the same time, engineering change order (ECO) procedures were standardized and the entire database structure was reorganized.
“If we also link bills of materials (BOMs) to the system,” continues Davino, “we obtain an engineering BOM, which becomes the first tile of the ERP system that generates the process bill. We have also implemented the management of datasheets and standardized components, applying classification and standardization rules for mechanical and standard components. Finally, as we can manage materials leveraging a complete data structure, each material is actually an item of the BOM, which is absolutely complete.”
Gate has customized the management of folders in Teamcenter to be able to collect all technical documents into the system, not only engineering files. Certifications, test reports and design revisions now flow into Teamcenter as single repository to be used for two purposes: project development and product development. “Another benefit is that each document is not published several times, but simply associated to one or more projects.”
Several years ago, new needs emerged in the area of requirements management. This was the result of a project driven and sponsored by the electronics industry, specifically the Spice consortium. “Requirements management is essential for project management, so we introduced Teamcenter requirements management functionality and, concurrently, we integrated the first steps of electronic design into the system. Using NX PCB Exchange, we exchange data between electronics and CAD, we import electronic components, PCB (printed circuit board) features, clearance areas for component mounting – all sorts of useful information for mechatronics designers.”
Another aspect of the company’s implementation of Teamcenter is related to sample management, based on a customer’s specific request to manage changes during the development stage, rather than only during post-production, so as to have a controlled flow even in the design validation phase. “Notifications and modifications to the BOM do not begin at the end of design, but at the start, right after the internal order that generates the code structure,” explains Davino. “In this way, we are starting to organize the database to bring the process BOM into Teamcenter as well. Our industrialization, logistic and administration departments are becoming full-featured Teamcenter users, able to generate and check BOMs that will flow into the production cycle.”
With sample management, Gate expanded its use of Teamcenter beyond the engineering sphere. At present, out of 250 employees in Italy, there are approximately 180 Teamcenter users at Gate, while the number is close to 250 on a global scale. Next, Gate will complete BOM management for packaging, so that the ERP system will be fed with the final BOM, clean and ready to be imported. At that point, the entire process will be IT-driven, from codes generated within Teamcenter and fully managed with Teamcenter until the point where the information goes to ERP.
“We have more projects in the pipeline as well,” Davino adds. “We are transferring all OrCAD documentation to Teamcenter; OrCAD is the software we use to draw electric diagrams and for the functional simulation and definition of electronic cards. In this way, we will achieve full integration with mechatronics, including not only the layout and BOM, but all electronic documents as well. Another development will extend requirements management to design tasks, so we will no longer use Teamcenter only for electronic software. Currently, each designer has a personal method for managing specifications, but we need a duly-regulated method to manage the requirements of the whole system.”
After that, the company is considering using Teamcenter for project management. “Once we have implemented system requirements management on one side and sample management on the other, we will be able to merge these two worlds to create one single sequence of workflows linked to Teamcenter,” says Davino. “The project management functionality in Teamcenter introduces the time parameter, which we have not yet implemented even though time is a key factor. We will define a time schedule for this new project. One thing is for sure: Teamcenter is excellent software and we are very satisfied. Especially in the automotive industry, Teamcenter is very popular, because it can be efficiently integrated with and manage other CAD solutions.”