Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with Pierre d'Imbleval, chief information officer, Renault Sport Racing, about how the organisation's IT estate plays a critical role in its success – covering everything from design and prototyping through to manufacturing, logistics and data analysis.
Renault and motorsport can boast a pedigree that stretches well over a century of technological innovation and on-track success. Over that time, Renault has developed many an iconic racing car, drivers have become household names and many prestigious victories have been enjoyed on the track aided by Renault's technological triumphs. The Renault Sport Formula One Team's F1 programme forms the core of Renault Sport Racing, the entity encompassing all the company's motorsport activities, from Formula E to Formula Renault 2.0 and including customer racing programmes.
So, from a design perspective, what does chief information officer, Pierre d'Imbleval, consider to be some of the main critical daily challenges for Renault Sport Racing? "One of the main daily challenges for a Formula One team is to maintain the speed of development – from design and aerodynamics to the actual manufacture of the part to fit on the car in time for the next race," he said.
From an IT perspective, d'Imbleval explained that this requires a very high level of reliability and performance – both in terms of the IT hardware and software that Renault Sport Racing uses on a regular basis, and also in terms of the reliability of the company's user community to ensure Renault Sport Racing can maximise its working time focusing on creativity, simulation and then 3D prototyping.
In terms of the IT estate that is so critical to Renault Sport Racing's success, d'Imbleval pointed out that the design process really starts with the aerodynamics study. "For this we use the CATiA 3D product design solution from Dassault Systèmes to design the parts," he explained. "We then use CFD (computational fluid dynamics) to run simulations before the parts are 3D prototyped and put into the wind tunnel. So, IT makes a big contribution to this very critical part of our design process."
Once the shape of the car part has been designed, d'Imbleval explained that these parts are then 3D prototyped, before they are fitted to a smaller scale model of the car. "We use 3D printers – provided by one of our solution partners, 3D Systems – to print the parts, said d'Imbleval. "The model is then put into the wind tunnel so we can start to run the simulations. Then, through correlation we continuously improve the shape of the car – in accordance with FIA regulations, of course."
When the external shape of the car is finalised, the process moves to Renault Sport Racing's design office, which sets about transforming the shape into real parts. d'Imbleval explained that the parts are manufactured in the composite workshop or using the metal machine tools the company has at its site in Enstone, Oxfordshire. "This is where the industrial process begins in terms of making real parts from the initial design," he said.
Once the parts designed with CATiA and are ready to be manufactured, Renault Sport Racing then switches to the ERP world. "The ERP system we use is Microsoft Dynamics 365," said d'Imbleval, adding that, from a functional standpoint, this covers everything from the beginning of the manufacturing process to parts distribution, logistics and raw material management. It also includes the financial package that Renault Sport Racing uses on a regular basis.
d'Imbleval explained that Renault Sport Racing's 'upstream' world is everything regarding engineering – the design office work, aerodynamics, stress analysis and simulation. The company's 'on-stream' world is everything related to what could be described as classical ERP features – manufacturing, planning, procurement, purchasing, finance etc.
Two years ago, Renault Sport Racing decided to move the infrastructure part of the ERP system into the Cloud environment. d'Imbleval elaborated: "The strategy we have is to let our solutions partner Microsoft Azure take care of this in order to ensure that everything regarding the performance of the solution – for example, increased storage requirements or the need to increase the performance of the servers – is acted upon. Also, from a disaster recovery standpoint, we recognise that a supplier like Microsoft is able to invest all that is necessary to take care of the ERP infrastructure; allowing our own IT staff to focus on bringing more business value through the ERP solution to the user population instead of spending too much time on technical issues."
d'Imbleval pointed out that the upstream/engineering part of the business will probably remain on-premise for a while, mainly due to regulatory requirements. "We are not permitted to massively compute into the Cloud," he explained. "However, the downstream part – the ERP and all the typical office-related functionality, including email – has been operating in the Cloud for the past couple of years. We use Office 365 very effectively, and through that move we would like also to maximise the benefit of the collaborative environment within Office 365 – SharePoint, One Drive and the extended capacity of Cloud services – for our users."
The IT group in the UK is also developing custom software; for example, to monitor the performance of the car on track. "The solution is very .net-oriented," explained d'Imbleval. "There is also a regulatory obligation to use telemetry software from supplier McLaren Technology Group for the Formula One teams. This is an area that all the Formula One teams need to comply with, and develop their own software to maximise the performance of the car from that data."
The next big IT challenge for Renault Sport Racing, and the F1 industry in general, is Big Data, according to d'Imbleval. "We generate massive amounts of data each time the car runs on the track," he said. "For this reason, the next major project for us is to gain greater benefit from all this data, and to use things such as machine learning to identify patterns and behaviours that are much easier to detect through Big Data than by simply relying on a human being. So, we want to use those technologies to explore new areas of performance for our team. Through the use of Big Data, we also want to work closer with the experts and engineers who have a deep understanding of the Formula One racing business. However, for this to be realised, we need the right IT infrastructure and IT architecture that will make accessing the diversity of data sources much easier."
d'Imbleval pointed out that Renault Sport Racing's Big Data project is ongoing. "We recently introduced a few new initiatives within the organisation, and what we aim to do now is federate those initiatives within a real-team and a real-project environment to ensure we are not consuming resources in an isolated manner. We want to bring these capacities together to address the first-priority challenges we have from a data standpoint – for example, in terms of race strategy or tyre model simulation. This is the kind of domain where we would like to explore Big Data and machine learning technology."
Most of Renault Sport Racing's design, manufacturing and testing activities take place at its site in Enstone. "This is really to maximise the speed and reduce the time between when we complete the design process to when we test the car for real or through simulation," said d'Imbleval. "This is why most of our resources are in-house. We have suppliers we partner with, but once we set up the design of the car and we need to improve the car over the season then all that process takes place in-house."
What of future plans for Renault Sport Racing? "Formula One is a world that generates an impressive level of creativity and willingness to explore new ways of improving car performance," reflected d'Imbleval. "But at the same time, from a process standpoint, we want to mitigate the risk of too much innovation. So, from a process standpoint we would like to carefully explore new things, while from a technological standpoint we are keen to explore innovative areas. It's a careful mix of both risk mitigation regarding processes and advanced technology to bring improved performance to the car."
So for the future, concluded d'Imbleval, the IT staff would like to help the business side to mitigate that risk while exploring business process automation that will bring speed in the way we design and manufacture the car, while respecting the fact that you cannot be late when the race starts."