The cost dynamics of digital prototyping in the automotive industry

Taking a zero prototyping approach to automotive manufacturing can result in huge benefits for an organisation. By using simulations to reduce the need for physical prototypes in the early stages of the development cycle, manufacturers can affect cost in all areas of the business.

Cost is not only a fiscal concept— it may be represented in time, resources, or even opportunities. When performing a cost/benefit analysis of shifting toward zero prototyping, it’s important to explore all the ways cost plays a role in decision-making.

The role of cost in prototyping

The role of cost is a critical consideration in the design and engineering phase of automotive manufacturing, particularly when deciding the balance between often contradictory market, customer, engineering, manufacturing or quality goals. Whether through Henry Ford’s pioneering of mass production techniques, Toyota’s perfection of lean, quality processes, or the recent innovations by numerous electric vehicle manufacturers revolutionising what’s possible, cost is a primary consideration and enabler in the automotive world.

Traditional modes of physical prototyping often entail significant material and production expenses. However, the largest expense and cost is the time-consuming nature of physical prototypes and the relatively low level of information fidelity they typically yield. In our digital age, if we can digitise these processes, then there’s nothing stopping us moving at digital speeds, with a far richer degree of performance insight than has ever been available physically. This is true whether considering a digital prototype of an end product, or the process required to manufacture that product.

The usual costs associated with design and engineering are the high monetary cost impact of late-phase design changes and the temporal costs of time-to-market delays. Simulation and virtual prototypes are an attractive alternative to multiple rounds of physical testing on design iterations. Engineers can iterate designs in a virtual environment within a digital feedback loop, and only create physical models when it’s time to validate the results of their tests in real-world conditions. (For more on the digital feedback loop, download our eBook.)
Digital prototyping leverages advanced software and simulation tools to create virtual models that can be rapidly modified and tested at a fraction of the cost and time associated with physical prototypes.

We can iterate at significantly increased speed, gaining more information and insight, earlier in the design process, leading to cost reductions across the entire lifecycle of an automotive vehicle, such as:

  • Overall R&D costs such as researching new technologies, materials, designs and vehicle models
  • Design and engineering costs to gain the insights needed to manufacture vehicles in the millions reliably and safely.
  • Materials and part costs such as raw materials and simpler or reduced number of parts.
  • Manufacturing process costs associated with the production, manufacture, assembly and inspection of vehicles, as well as quality control costs
  • Support and warranty costs associated with the correction and on-going support of products in the market

In addition, given the increasing acceptance and need for tools like these, we also must consider the opportunity cost of not under-taking digital prototyping. Essentially this would be the costs associated with losing out on the time, resource and insight benefits that can be obtained digitally over that which is available physically on the same time scales.

a man at a desk looking at a simulation of a car on a computer

The scope of automotive manufacturing costs

To effectively manage production economics in automotive manufacturing, it’s crucial to understand the diverse factors influencing costs, such as raw materials, labour, energy, technology and regulatory compliance. Costs vary across the manufacturing stages, from design to distribution. By analysing all costs, including monetary, time, and opportunity costs, and identifying the main cost drivers, manufacturers can enhance efficiency, minimise waste and boost competitiveness. Additionally, considering sustainability and changing consumer preferences is vital for adopting eco-friendly practices and meeting market demands profitably. A deep understanding of cost dynamics aids decision-makers in fostering innovation, productivity and long-term success in the competitive global market.

Research and development cost savings

Digital prototyping leads to substantial cost and time savings by enabling designers to simulate design variations that are simply unavailable for physical validation. With digital prototyping they can rapidly iterate and validate ideas and concepts. As an opportunity cost there’s a tremendous benefit to iterating early and often, in as lean a way as possible, helping to reduce vehicle test time by as much as 30% in the R&D phases.

Design and engineering cost savings

Digital prototyping can help significantly shorten detailed development cycles, reducing the time and cost associated with bringing a product to market. Balancing more detailed engineering considerations, providing detailed direction insight, and the early detection and swift resolution of detailed design challenges, help prevent costly redesigns and rework later in the development process. What’s more, with more established technologies, it’s possible to standardise and automate operating processes and methodologies, driving up quality consistency and efficiency. Furthermore, digital prototyping enhances collaboration, reducing miscommunication enabling teams to work more effectively together.

Resource, materials and part count reductions

Digital prototyping can help optimise designs for minimal material and resource usage, weight while maintaining functionality. They can equally be used to help identify and validate opportunities for part consolidation.

In this respect Hexagon is a well-established leader, partnering with customers to optimise their materials and helping them deliver as much as 50-70% reduction in part and material costs. The downstream savings, in manufacturing, and over the actual lifespan of a vehicle can be enormous.

Reduced tooling and equipment

While there’s a focus on establishing digital prototyping to understand the performance of a vehicle what’s often less well appreciated is how digital prototyping is also commonly used to simulate and predict actual manufacturing processes. Critical for any “design for manufacturing” or quality focused initiative, digital prototyping is now a well-established method to outline, iterate, and validate manufacturing processes. Whether a CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) toolpath, a mold, cast, stamp, form, cut, weld, composite layup, additive or simple assembly manufacturing process, digital prototyping can deliver practical results on the shop floor.

Manufacturing process efficiency

Once the process of manufacture is established, fine tuning a process and its associated production steps is often an iterative process of improvement quite often outlined during production trial and ramp up. As with other aspects of manufacturing this is a process particularly well suited to digital iteration and ideas of continual improvement with overall efficiency savings quite commonly above 75%.

Legal regulatory and sustainability savings

Digital compliance strategies, which include digital prototyping, have been proven to help firms meet their regulatory requirements more efficiently. This efficiency can lead to cost savings by reducing the time and resources required to comply with regulations and allowing companies to catalog design decisions and demonstrate compliance. Hexagon, with its structural simulation capabilities has in fact pioneered this area, delivering one of the first tools trusted to certify designs from a regulatory safety perspective.

Complementing these essential considerations, today, we’re Increasingly seeing requirements for sustainability regulation, particularly where materials, resource utilisation is concerned, particularly if it involves hazardous materials.

Whether lightweighting parts, assessing fuel efficiency via aero dynamic drag coefficients, or delivering improved fuel efficiency Hexagon’s digital prototyping is one of the few solutions trusted to mitigate exposure and risk.

After sales, support and warranty savings

Moving beyond legal requirements actively mitigating cost risk associated with the actual operation of a vehicle “in service” is one of the most traditional focal points for digital prototyping. Whether improving quality, to reduce returns, or improving safety, digital prototyping has offered significant value avoiding problems, or investigating them.

In this area Hexagon customers have seen as much as 50% improvement in key performance indicators and have seen a 30-40% improvement in the speed with which they can solve quality issues with digital prototyping.

The broader impact on the automotive industry

The journey towards zero prototyping in automotive manufacturing holds significant promise for organisations seeking to effectively reduce costs without sacrificing quality, safety, or reliability. Using simulations to reduce dependency on physical prototypes provides numerous advantages, of which cost management is merely one aspect.

Beyond individual manufacturers, the broader impact of zero prototyping extends across the automotive industry, promising improved quality, accelerated innovation, and enhanced collaboration. With simulations revolutionising the entire automotive workflow, from design to production, and beyond, the future holds exciting possibilities for those willing to embrace this transformative approach. As the industry adapts to an ever-evolving, virtually augmented world, the adoption of simulation technology may well be the key to staying competitive.

To learn more about how the journey towards zero prototyping can impact your operations, read our eBook.


  • Keith Perrin

    Keith Perrin joined MSC Software and Hexagon in February 2017, bringing more than 15 years of experience in the US and EMEA with Siemens, Autodesk and Oracle Cloud. Today, as an Industry Director for Hexagon Manufacturing, Keith gets to leverage 20 years of digital design, modeling and simulation experience helping customers realise their aspirations.

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