GM: A 'Virtual' Automaker?

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2002-11-01 Print this article Print

While automakers long have relied on suppliers to help them design and deliver parts, the Cadillac CTS is the first GM vehicle where a supplier has acted as a systems integrator.

While automakers long have relied on suppliers to help them design and deliver parts, the Cadillac CTS is the first GM vehicle where a supplier has acted as a systems integrator.

Intier Automotive of Aurora, Canada, did not deliver some kind of electronic data system to GM, however. Instead, it delivered an entire interior, from seats to steering wheel, as a package. The collaboration with Intier is one of GM's first steps toward a new approach to engineering and manufacturing that moves the company nearer to becoming a "virtual" auto manufacturer.

By letting suppliers take over the assembly of major chunks of a car, GM can dedicate most of those people to other projects, with substantial savings.

In the past, for instance, while suppliers did a significant amount of the development work on interiors, they were overseen by "shadow engineers" at GM, essentially duplicating the effort of GM's product team. Now, collaborative software, high-speed regional networks, and standardized processes have turned major suppliers and service providers into extensions of GM's operations. In the new methodology, a "skunk works" team from Intier was brought directly into Cadillac's Flint, Mich., offices, to work directly with the GM product team on their tools and systems.

While other "affiliated" suppliers had worked on site in the past, Intier's team was integrated directly into GM's design team, according to Bob Kinney, director of GM prestige products for Intier. This gave them early access to GM's information technology, which would be key as the project accelerated.

The design for the new CTS evolved out of the Evoq, a two-door coupe that GM unveiled at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show. As clay models were being worked, Intier "would bring in 'SWAT teams' from four or five suppliers, and focus on a specific area of the styling with them"—the instrument panel, the seating, the air conditioning and heating systems, the audio systems.

Intier's team at GM had to scramble, using Microsoft Office applications and e-mail to manage project data. That bootstrap approach had some pluses—"It gave us a level of intimacy with the data, so we knew what was important," Kinney says. "And then we found ways to bridge our information to the GM world."

But as the project sped up, the self-supporting approach taken by the Intier CTS team hit the wall. "We were in a situation where we were trying to turn around quotes in hours and days instead of in days and weeks," says Kinney. "So we had to reinvent our processes." As the project moved from styling to product development, the work began to shift back to Intier's offices. In late 1998, Intier was connected to GM's high-speed GigaMAN network—just as the final styling for the CTS was being released.

Design files and other data then could be pulled on demand from GM's server in Warren, Mich. From a network standpoint, a supplier site would "look just like another GM site," says Kirk Gutmann, GM's global development product information officer.

The networking helped Intier deal with late changes affecting multiple suppliers. Changes in the heating system of the car, for instance, meant changes to the foot-wells in the interior; a change in the "infotainment" systems (the navigation display, sound system and other electronics options) meant "a lot of wiring harness changes," says Kinney.

Intier is now integrating the interiors for the follow-on models to the CTS for Cadillac, out of its own studios. Intier's designers and engineers still work side-by-side with peers from GM, but now the roles are reversed to some degree—GM sends team members to work from Intier's offices.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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