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COMMENT: Digital tools hit a cultural barrier

The biggest obstacle to the adoption of much needed new digital engineering tools is not technology, but culture, reveals Professor Sam Akehurst

A group of automotive engineering leaders has concluded that we are a long way from having the digital tools our industry needs to accelerate the development of next-generation electric and electrified powertrains. Even more concerning is that if they were available, many companies would find their organisational silos would prevent their adoption.

These insights, and the first steps towards a solution, came from a workshop chaired by my colleague Professor Chris Brace, academic director at The University of Bath’s new Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS). Organised in collaboration with the UK’s Institute for Digital Engineering, the event brought together vehicle manufacturers, Tier 1 technology suppliers and consultancies to take a gloves-off look at what we need and how we can deliver it quickly.

The starting point was to define the opportunity, breaking away from the traditional approach of employing digital systems simply to replace conventional test and development processes or in discreet areas like CFD and visualisation. The most pressing example is the specification of electric and electrified vehicle powertrains, a field in which the range of technology options is increasingly vast and the interactions between each system are increasingly complex. Digital tools are finding a new role in illuminating technology strategy decisions and the evaluation of options for very high levels of integration. The rewards in this area alone will be considerable, but the key is to understand that it is an orientation that is needed, not absolute fidelity.

Will simulation completely replace physical testing? It is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future

This is an area where the digital system suppliers are already making significant progress, with several specialists offering end-to-end toolsets that join up the capabilities of their more focussed offerings. But many specialists feel these don’t answer enough of the ‘big’ questions so have developed their own proprietary decision support tools. While this may answer the immediate need for these companies, adoption is patchy and too little interoperability means opportunities for joined-up working cannot be fully exploited.

Building on the need for organisations, and even internal departments, to work more closely together, collaboration—the subject of Professor Brace’s recent article—was next up on the white board. The journey to electrification requires teams comprised of a broad range of organisations, from the global Tier 1s to youthful innovation firms and university academics. With reduced global travel, the ways in which these teams work remotely together will be one of the main determinants of a programme’s success. The workshop confirmed that faster, more intense innovation will require the new generation tools to be designed from the ground up to enable secure, remote team working within an IP-sensitive environment. These features must be core functionality so the new way of working is embedded and easily accessible. Implementation must include training in collaboration skills that starts with a top-down culture shift that breaks down internal silos.

Looking further ahead, digital tools will also help engineering teams derive more value from the rich resource of real-life usage data that will soon be available in the cloud. A new evolution of statistical tools is already being developed to help extract valuable trends from large, complex datasets and could be used to continually improve decision making. The most obvious application is to help make simulations much more representative of real driving but, equally important, we can use this data to help us save cost and weight when evaluating component life targets. Digital tools will allow us to explore more options, more cheaply and potentially in days rather than weeks.

Faster, more intense innovation will require the new generation tools to be designed from the ground up to enable secure, remote team working within an IP-sensitive environment

The workshop concluded with the question our non-technical peers often ask: will simulation completely replace physical testing? It is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. The delegates agreed that technologies are evolving too quickly to keep simulation sufficiently far ahead of technology developments. New battery chemistries are a great example. In other areas, like combustion, we are years from having enough computing power and enough fidelity in the algorithms to remove the need for physical experiments.

Paradoxically, accelerating the application of digital engineering needs a realistic understanding of the technique’s limitations and a strong focus on physical testing and real-world data to explore and resolve areas of poor correlation. This is critically dependant on internal groups supporting each other, working to industry standards so that their data is accessible, verifiable and valuable to others both inside and outside their organisations. Again, breaking down silos, and the cultural shifts required to enable this, are fundamental requirements.

The workshop opened with many delegates expecting to conclude that simulation technology is the roadblock, but we finished by concluding it is the approach of senior management that needs to change.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Professor Sam Akehurst is Deputy Academic Director at The University of Bath’s new £70 million Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems

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