The pressure to find a competitive edge in racing is intense, with the slightest design modification capable of shaving crucial seconds off a driver’s lap time. Lindsay James finds out how Penske Racing is using PTC’s Windchill solution to stay in pole position.

Winning is a tradition at Penske Racing, an organisation that has earned over 310 major race victories, more than 370 pole positions and 22 national championships. These totals are sure to grow as the year goes on and, with talented teams expected to consistently run at the front of the field in both the Nascar Cup and Nationwide Series, as well as the IZOD IndyCar Series, it could truly be a landmark year in the rich history of the company.

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At the heart of Penske’s success is its engineering team. Working from its state-of-the-art facility in Mooresville, North Carolina, the 61-strong team is working under immense pressure and to time-critical deadlines, knowing that just one small design modification can make or break a race.

“If we make a mistake it’s obvious to hundreds of thousands of fans at the same time,” explains Stephen Pickett, senior vice president and chief information officer at Penske Corporation, Penske Racing’s parent company worth US$14 billion. “We like to win races and the way we do this is with precision and perfection.”

To achieve this precision and perfection, Penske uses Windchill PLM software from PTC, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. Each development phase within the life of a part, component or other related content can be defined within Windchill, along with the gating conditions that must be satisfied to advance to the next step. Such transitions can be automatically controlled by associating workflow processes with lifecycle phases and gates, thus delivering large productivity gains.

We chose PTC’s Windchill and Microsoft’s SQL Server because we wanted the best product development solution on the market and a database that offered enterprise-ready functionality

Thomas German,  Penske Racing Pickett says that Penske’s decision to choose Windchill as its PLM software was simple: “We knew that the software was the best in the industry, and that’s why we chose it. There was no real bidding process – we based our decision on the knowledge of our engineers and the capabilities of the software.”

“Penske’s needs mirror the product development challenges faced by most manufacturers today,” says Victor Gerdes, PTC’s director for Windchill product management. “The company needs to develop innovative and successful products that are increasing in complexity, in less time and under relentless cost pressures. Windchill PLM software helps to optimise product development by enabling Penske to completely define the race cars as digital models, making it easy to store, find, change, and share product data, as well as allowing it to standardise and automate its product development business processes – specifically change management. Because the Penske engineers can find, review, change and share design data, then use electronic workflows that automate their business processes, they are able to develop products more quickly.”

Pickett adds: “The benefit we realise from Windchill is that we can do things correctly the first time, and we can do them at the speed at which we need to do them.”

When the company consolidated all of its operations to a new facility in the US in 2006 it made sense to do the same with its IT infrastructure. “We’ve standardised on Microsoft across our enterprise,” explains Pickett. “Take our parts management, for example. We use a tailor-made solution called Car Main, which keeps track of the age of the parts that make up the vehicles. This is an extremely important database for our engineers, but because it runs on Microsoft SQL Server, and the PLM solution used Oracle, integrating the systems was a challenge.”

When Penske decided to upgrade to a new release of Windchill, it took the opportunity to also migrate to Microsoft SQL Server. Not only does the database provide built-in scalability features and a compelling total cost of ownership, but the solution’s parallel operations allow more data to be processed in a shorter timeframe. Benchmarking tests confirmed that the combined upgrade to Windchill 9.1 and migration to SQL Server 2005 delivered an average performance improvement of 10 per cent to the end user.

“These results confirm that deploying Windchill 9.1 on Microsoft SQL Server 2005 provides users with a robust database platform, supporting the performance standards of Windchill and delivering on users’ strategic PLM initiatives,” explains Gerdes.

Windchill has a multi-tier Internet architecture, with a client tier, an application tier containing the Web server and application servers, and a database and LDAP on the back end. “If you think of Windchill as Penske’s single source of truth for product data, then think of the database as where that truth is stored,” says Gerdes. “For Penske, the benefits of moving to SQL Server were significant. Not only would engineers be able to access information all from one place, but Penske would benefit from easy manageability and improved application performance.”

For most manufacturers this kind of migration can take months, but not for Penske. “We do everything at the same speed that we develop race cars,” says Pickett. “Where other organisations do things in months or years, we do things in days. Our projects are a series of 13 second pit stops, and without the software to support us, we’re not going to succeed.”

“Getting the migration completed in a short timeframe was crucial to Penske,” says Gerdes. “It couldn’t afford to have significant amounts of downtime, and its busiest time of the year was beginning in a month or so. What’s more, we needed to complete the migration without interrupting the designers. With this in mind, the entire migration, including moving from a previous version of Windchill to Windchill 9.1, took less than a week.”

David Graff, director for Microsoft’s US automotive and industrial equipment industry solutions, says that it is the Microsoft and PTC collaboration that allowed such a speedy implementation. “Microsoft and PTC have worked closely together to produce quality deployment and architectural guidance that helps to ensure success of Windchill customers like Penske deploying on SQL Server in a relatively short amount of time,” he explains. “Penske was able to complete its migration to SQL Server over one weekend, which is a tremendous feat.”

“At Penske, we understand the importance of speed and performance,” says Thomas German, Penske Racing’s technical director. “We chose PTC’s Windchill and Microsoft’s SQL Server because we wanted the best product development solution on the market and a database that offered enterprise-ready functionality and low total cost of ownership. We’re already seeing performance gains and we’re really happy with our decision.”

Penske users are reporting that they’re really enjoying the improved performance of the latest version of Windchill in combination with Microsoft SQL Server. “Pages pop up faster and it takes less time to find digital product models,” says Gerdes. “What’s more, because Penske is standardised on SQL Server, it is able to easily set up automated maintenance routines, making database maintenance easier and less time consuming.”

Following the success of the migration, Penske is looking to expand its Windchill implementation to include integration with Microsoft SharePoint Server, enabled by Windchill Web Parts for SharePoint. This solution gives companies broader access to product data, improving worker productivity by presenting essential Windchill information in a familiar SharePoint browser. Workers can retrieve key product information using flexible search parameters, and configure searches of important data for display in team sites. Users can also work faster by building cross-application dashboards, so they can seamlessly access and edit documents regardless of their location, as well as view and mark up product viewables. Additionally, those in the extended enterprise can benefit from having access to product data, improving business processes beyond the product development arena.

Pickett also expects to implement Microsoft Dynamics AX in the coming months. Windchill integrated with Dynamics AX links critical up- and down-stream product lifecycle processes and data. This helps customers improve product development effectiveness, lower product development costs, speed up product time-to-market and increase data visibility across the enterprise.

“A move to SharePoint will significantly improve vendor collaboration and integration with Dynamics AX will mean that all of our business systems fit together nicely,” explains Pickett. “In the future, when a component is engineered, it will flow through every process, end to end – from design all the way through paying the supplier for components that they’ve built for us – using PTC and Microsoft technology.”

Clearly there’s a strong commitment to Microsoft technology, both from PTC and Penske, and this is something that Graff believes will pave the way for a successful future. “We have a long history of working with PTC to deliver solutions that help businesses like Penske to lower costs and create valuable products in a timely manner. We are excited by our successes to date and look forward to continued opportunities for collaboration.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Prime.