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Zurich start-up drives away with auto software niche

AutoForm's software has been used by car manufacturers such as BMW

(Keystone Archive)

AutoForm Engineering GmbH has just celebrated five years in business with a turnover of SFr15 million - not bad for a company that is "too busy" to advertise and did not need outside funding to grow.

AutoForm Engineering, based in Zurich's Technopark, doubled its staff in 2001 from 30 to 60 employees and plans similar growth this year.

The five-year-old start-up is moving in the fast lane because its software meets a critical need in the automotive industry: improving the productivity of engineers who make dies or moulds for car parts.

In general, the automotive industry is a huge consumer of software and design tools. It devours the latest in IT systems, processes and systems, using them wherever it can for car design, testing, process optimisation and supply chain management to increase productivity and profits.

Until now, AutoForm has focused efforts on developing die design simulation software to be used by big name automobile manufacturers, such as BMW, Jaguar, Peugeot and Nissan.

But, according to AutoForm, the latest version of its software - released last month - expands the usefulness of the software to companies that supply parts to the large automobile manufacturers further back in the automotive supply chain, such as Alcoa, Krupp, Dana and Karmann, and hundreds more.

Building vehicles

By using high-strength steels, aluminium, magnesium and plastics, automakers can achieve the goal of building vehicles that weigh less. Lighter cars need less fuel.

But a problem arises when it comes to using the newer, alternative metals or new composites for parts.

Manufacturers lack the know-how with the new metal that they have when it comes to steel. They understand the properties of steel and what happens when you pour it into a mould, bend, fold, or form it into various parts for an automobile.

But when it comes to the newer, lighter materials, manufacturers are not always sure how it will react.

Increasingly, they rely on die design and simulation software to calculate how the metals will react to make up for that lack of in-depth understanding.

Existing databases

Such software takes data from the CAD design tools and adds data about "material laws" or properties from existing databases, which provide information about what happens to alternative materials when they are shaped or moulded.

AutoForm's software contains these databases plus a cunning algorithm or two, developed by Waldemar Kubli, the firm's CEO, when he was a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

The niche that AutoForm's software belongs to is called "one-step solvers".

After designing the dies or moulds using the Swiss software, parts makers then develop prototypes. By designing better prototypes early on, the manufacturers save money.

The advantage of using the software is the computation time. "You get your
results quickly," says Dr Stefan Jaeger at the Institute for Metal Forming
Technology in Stuttgart.

Although for complex parts, points out the expert, it may be necessary to counter-check results with an "explicit" simulation software, referring to multi-purpose "finite element analysis" software solutions.

AutoForm systems are used by Alusuisse, Audi, Benteler, BMW, Corus, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda, Jaguar Cars, Karmann, Krupp-Hoesch Stahl, Laepple, Lawson Mardon Packaging, Lotus, Mayflower Vehicle Systems, Mercedes, Nissan, Schuler, Swindon Pressings, Thyssen Stahl, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Most recently, Peugeot, Renault, and Landrover became customers.

The company is not without competition. There are several other one-step simulation packages on the market, including Dyna and ESI Group. ESI is a publicly traded French company that has been growing rapidly through acquisition, as well as organic growth.

by Valerie Thompson


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