Shelby American sets the pace with Dell Precision workstations

Shelby American can design vehicles in three to four months while running its IT department as a profit centre thanks to Dell technology. Karen McCandless finds out more

Karen McCandless
Karen McCandless
By Karen McCandless on 27 June 2014
Shelby American sets the pace with Dell Precision workstations

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue of Prime

Shelby American was founded by Carroll Shelby, one of America’s greatest ever race car drivers who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the world’s oldest active sports car endurance race – in 1959. Today, the company is the fourth largest car manufacturer in the US and makes high-performance automobiles known around the world such as the original Shelby Cobra roadster and the Shelby GT350. It now records sales of US$50 million annually and builds about 2,000 cars by hand per year at its Las Vegas headquarters facility.

Shelby has also been involved in the development of several key vehicles for Chrysler that helped restore the carmaker’s image. Among these vehicles was the Dodge Viper, which sparked a new super car competition among auto manufacturers in the US. The company has also consulted on the Ford GT and a number of other high-performance vehicles built in cooperation with Ford Motor Company.

To enable it to quickly prototype design changes and cut car design cycles down from months to weeks, the company uses Dell Precision T7600 and T3600 tower workstations for its compute-intensive CAD programs and graphics applications.

“When we design a new model for the next year, what we’re actually designing is a package to go on an existing car,” says Rich Sparkman, IT director at Shelby American. “The challenge we face is to get the CAD information in time to make these modifications and start producing the extra pieces. When Shelby works on a Ford Mustang, for example, we get a lot of our CAD data, especially for the body, from Ford Motor Company. We input this data into our CAD programs and design new hoods, grills, bumper covers and body panels. We then make changes and distribute them to our sub-contracted manufacturers to produce the parts.”

Shelby must be able to make the design iterations in a timely matter, as the company needs to be able to turn these products around very quickly. “Ford has the luxury of having three to four years to design a car; we have three to four months,” says Sparkman. “If we don’t get the CAD files turned around quickly enough and out to our manufacturers, we’ll miss the next big trade show, such as the New York Auto Show or the Detroit Auto Show. These shows are very important as they are where we release our new models.”

The company – and Sparkman in particular – has a long history with Dell and has had much success with the Precision workstations since it started using them in 1997. “Before I started working at Shelby, I was employed by a computer manufacturer where it was my responsibility to certify our workstations with Microsoft for the Windows operating system,” he says. “So I understand from Dell’s perspective what it takes to create a quality machine. When I look at other vendors, Dell offers the best certification for those workstations; it offers the widest range, its ordering process is easy and its support is unmatched. If I ever have any issues, I can always reach somebody by phone. I have had a variety of experiences before I started working at Shelby with other manufacturers that didn’t live up to the same standards as Dell, and that was why we went with Dell in the first place.”

When Sparkman first started working at Shelby 17 years ago, it was a completely different climate – a lot of the designs were drawn on paper or the parts were fabricated by hand and then digitised afterwards. “We had 20 engineers on staff and they didn’t have any computers at all,” says Sparkman. “So I looked at IBM and I looked at Gateway, and ultimately we decided on Dell Precision workstations. That was at the inception of our engineering programme and we have upgraded the workstations all the way to today. The company provides the reliability and the speed we need to get the job done in a timely manner.”

Speed and reliability are two key attributes Shelby’s IT team needs to be able to get the job done. The new Precision workstations it uses today have faster processors through the quad-core Intel Zeon processors, as well as 16GB of memory. “With the improvements to this version of workstation, we don’t have to fight with the machines any longer to get the CAD files completed,” says Sparkman. “We no longer have to spend a lot of time sitting at the computer working on these files and waiting for it to render or do all the aerodynamic checks for all the body panels.”

The new workstations also helped Shelby when the company decided to get into the truck market a year ago with the Ford Raptor, which is an off-road speciality version of the F-150. “We took the trucks and went to different vendors who have been in the industry for a long time,” says Sparkman. “We looked at what they were producing and investigated whether they would produce parts for us. Then we got some of their CAD designs, put them on our Precision workstations and went through our design and testing process. We then sent those designs back along with their source CAD files. So the Precision workstations were crucial in getting us into the truck market just in time for the New York Auto Show in 2013.”

Dell technology has also enabled the company to bring its design operations in house, creating a new profit centre. The team now produces Shelby American’s posters, t-shirts and other souvenirs on Dell Precision workstations. “Our IT department is not like most – we are a profit centre not a cost centre,” says Sparkman. “With the previous version of the Precision workstations that we implemented three years ago, we were able to make this a reality. To get to that place, we had to do a variety of things. We started by taking the production of our marketing materials in house because that gave us an instant cost saving of about US$50,000 a year. These materials include magazine adverts, t-shirt designs for the retail store, as well as poster and banner printing. We’re now able to accelerate this, as we’re one workstation upgrade past this. Without the workstations and the speed they provide, we would have a much more difficult time making that a reality.”

As part of Shelby’s drive to always use the leading technology, it upgrades its Precision workstations regularly, ensuring they are never more than about two years old. “When they get to that stage we look for replacements and we move those workstations down the line to the office workers,” says Sparkman. “We also attend seminars and go to Dell events so we know what the latest products are. This means that when we do the upgrades we make sure we’re getting the right machine for the job."

This desire to always have the latest technology and regularly upgrade the workstations will help Shelby prepare for upcoming changes in its business model. As the 2015 Ford Mustang will be sold worldwide, it means that the company will have to design body panels and parts differently for markets outside the US.

“We have to do right-hand drive conversions, work with European emissions targets and use super chargers that will work in one country and not another,” says Sparkman. “At the same time, we still have to maintain our 50 state US legal status because we’re a licensed manufacturer here. Our cars have to be inspectable in all states, including California, which has the most stringent regulations. But those specifications don’t necessarily transfer to other areas of the world, so we have to tailor our designs according to the countries these cars will end up going to. As a result, there is a lot more CAD work and we have to support a much larger warehouse operation because we have to stock parts for different areas of the world. The Precision workstations help us stay on top of that.”

In 2012, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Instead of looking back at the previous 50 years, the company concentrated on looking at what the next 50 years of business will hold, and Dell technology is at the core of that. “In 2012, we completely refreshed our IT with the help of Dell. This included servers (Dell PowerEdge R510 rack servers and Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012), storage (SQL Server 2012) and networking, as well as virtualisation, which cut our footprint in half and our power consumption by 75%. We also use Dynamics CRM Online for our sales department and Office 365 for all departments, and are looking into making the jump from Windows 7 to Windows 8 for our next workstation upgrade, which will be in one year’s time. We want to take our technology as far as it can go in all aspects.”

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