GM Plans Digital TurnaroundBy Sean Gallagher | Posted 2002-11-01 Print
The $177-billion company has long been losing ground to domestic and foreign rivals. Now it's pinning hopes for a revival on becoming the first all-digital automaker.
In a brick-lined courtyard on the campus of General Motors' technical center in Warren, Mich., a team of engineers is taking a look at a newly designed truck. This is no ordinary pickup. It has the rounded fenders and arched hood of a '50s Chevy roadster, and a roof that folds into the back of the cabin. It's a convertible—the Chevrolet SSR, due in dealer showrooms this December.
This is also no ordinary setting to review a prototype. The truck rotates slowly on a turntable. Its shiny, cherry-red finish reflects the summer sunlight and the trees that border the courtyard.
When the lead designer doesn't like what he sees, he changes it. In an instant, the truck is repainted in magenta, and then black. The truck drives itself around the courtyard, so the lead engineer can see how it looks from different angles.
All this is possible because the truck and the courtyard don't really exist. This is GM's alternate universe—the GM Virtual Reality Center. When the lights come up and the engineers' 3-D eyeglasses come off, the truck—and the courtyard—fade away. The truck prototype, the paint changes, and the sunny summer day exist only on the disk drives of a Silicon Graphics supercomputer. The whole presentation has been projected on the glass walls of GM's version of a Star Trek "holodeck."
At GM, bits and bytes have replaced the clay and metal that once was used to build prototypes of new products. The SSR will be fully built in software before a single piece of sheet metal is cut.
A few years ago, reviewing a new pickup truck like the SSR would have required building multiple life-sized prototypes to get a feel for what they would look like. Changing the basic color would take three days and 100 man-hours of work. Now, using a remote control, anyone can change the color in a second.
The SSR isn't a one-hit digital wonder. To regain market share the company has lost steadily over the last 30 years, GM is trying to use technology to meet the challenge set by Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product development. His mandate: produce cars "that people gotta have—not ones they're willing to settle for."
To restore the thrill, GM has created a design process more akin to creating video games than automobiles. In fact, the software used by GM's designers to create this simulation—Silicon Graphics' Alias/Wavefront AutoStudio for three-dimensional surface modeling and product simulation —is cut from the same code as that used to create cars for games like Sony PlayStation's "Gran Turismo." (See our Dossier on Silicon Graphics.)
But this isn't an arcade; it's serious business. GM is digitizing every aspect it can of the manufacture of a vehicle, from the design of the factory floor right down to assisting the implant of the last fastener.
Every aspect of the SSR's design and engineering was executed "in math"—with computer modeling and design software. The AutoStudio prototype of the SSR was turned into an electronic blueprint for building the car in EDS' Unigraphics design software, which guided the engineering of the vehicle. On-screen drawings were shared electronically with suppliers to ensure that their parts fit the design. Supercomputers used the mathematical models to do virtual crash testing.
The SSR comes the closest yet to a goal stated in 1998 by Jay Wetzel, then vice president in charge of GM's engineering operations, of designing, viewing and simulating the performance of a "virtual vehicle" without actually having to build a single physical prototype. Throughout the SSR's entire development process, only 60 prototypes were built—and the very first of them was a working concept car for the 1999 Detroit Auto Show. "It went straight from math to fabrication for the show," says Don Siefkes, virtual reality manager at GM's Warren facility.
GM is now moving toward the endgame for reaching Wetzel's goal: carrying out manufacturing in an all-digital system as well. That requires some serious computing power. Warren now is home to the 15th largest supercomputing center in the world. But the logic behind this effort isn't rocket science. By eliminating bottlenecks and errors as well as avoiding the "re-inputting" of data, Chief Technology Officer Tony Scott says GM hopes to cut years of time—and billions of dollars—from its product development cycle.
The effort to re-engineer GM's product development process began in 1995, with the launch of its global Synchronous Math-Based Process program, focused on integrating all of GM's engineering computer tools around the world with one core design and manufacturing system, EDS's Unigraphics. The efforts accelerated over the next two years as GM's new CIO, Ralph Szygenda, put together a team to consolidate the company's engineering efforts.
The point man for this effort is Kirk Gutmann, hired in 1997 by Szygenda as vice president of product development information systems.
By 1997, GM had already seen a 13% improvement in engineering productivity, and Wetzel said at the time that he expected to see another 30% improvement by 2000.
To achieve those goals, Gutmann and Wetzel proposed making GM's design process totally digital. That would mean consolidation and standardization of GM's engineering systems, and a major investment in high-speed networks and data center capacity.
The main component of the plan: a single global system for storing, tracking and managing every aspect of the information associated with each of GM's products, from concept sketch to engineering drawings of every component that goes into a finished vehicle.
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