GM Gets a Move On Manufacturing

Automaker uses 3D visualization to speed up the process

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Now that General Motors has slashed the time it takes to design new cars from 48 months to just 18 months, the auto giant and its solution providers are taking significant steps toward reducing how long it takes to manufacture its vehicles as well. To reach that goal, GM is adding new 3D visualization capabilities to its product life-cycle manufacturing (PLM) system used to manage its manufacturing processes.

Not only is GM's effort significant to its key solution providers--which include EDS and HP Services--it also affects solution providers that work with any of GM's thousands of suppliers, which increasingly must be able to collaborate electronically with GM's engineers in near real-time.

Granted, the world's largest automaker is not alone in trying to improve its manufacturing processes. All major automakers have significant efforts under way to add new capabilities to their PLM suites in a drive to become more competitive from a design, manufacturing and product-quality standpoint. For example, earlier this year, Ford said it would augment its PLM functionalities by extending an agreement with EDS, and add software from IBM and its key partner, French-based Dassault Systems.

"For these large companies to roll out a new release is a fairly large event," says Stuart McCutcheon, president of EDS' PLM Solutions practice.

PLM software is the overall application used by companies in the manufacturing world that functions as a cradle-to-grave repository of any given product. Market researchers are all forecasting significant growth for PLM. This year, the market for PLM software and services is expected to reach $6.3 billion and to double during the next four years, according to ARC Advisory Group, a Dedham, Mass.-based researcher focused on the manufacturing and supply-chain business.

GM and Ford both use TeamCenter, a PLM system developed by EDS. Not only is GM integrating new computer-aided design (CAD) functionality into TeamCenter, which will allow engineers to share 3D drawings, but it is adding computer-aided engineering (CAE) as well. That is important from the standpoint of laying out and implementing manufacturing processes. In addition, TeamCenter links to GM's portal application, iMan, which gives suppliers access to 3D renderings from a secure Web link.

The new CAD offering is based on software called Unigraphics NX from EDS subsidiary Unigraphics. After HP Services provided the software integration, GM, in coordination with EDS, rolled out Unigraphics as its global CAD interface to 16 global engineering locations. In all, 18,000 designers and engineers at GM, as well as affiliates and suppliers, can now use the interface. Unigraphics integrates with TeamCenter and is designed to make it easier to share 3D renderings, shortening the time it takes to process jobs that are key to making manufacturing decisions, says Kirk Gutmann, GM's global product development information officer.

The upgrade is noteworthy for another reason: Despite the fact that GM is cutting back its overall IT spending, which EDS itself has said is impacting its revenue, it's not holding back on the automation of its design and manufacturing systems.

"They've reduced the number of programs they'll fund, but this is one of the significant ones they are moving forward with," says Kevin Mixmer, an automotive industry analyst at AMR Research.

"You don't see us slowing down," GM's Gutmann adds. "What we're trying to do for quality and cycle time for products is significant. We just can't afford to pass on these opportunities." By integrating Unigraphics into TeamCenter, Gutmann says GM can cut down manufacturing processes from weeks or months to just days--much of it by reducing the amount of time it takes to process and exchange design data within GM and with its suppliers. "It's all about productivity," Gutmann says. "The big things are going to be efficiencies and quality. Those are the two areas we are really driving right now."

Domino Effect
The upgrade is also translating into needed upgrades from a software, server and network infrastructure standpoint. For example, at GM, Gutmann says Cisco is providing VPNs and high-speed supplier gateways to allow for the needed bandwidth to exchange 3D files. In addition, GM is deploying some of EMC's new Symmetrix DMX storage subsystems. In all, GM utilizes 400 TB of storage capacity worldwide.

GM's effort to automate these processes means its parts suppliers must know about design and engineering changes. The more that can be automated, the less room there is for error and the less lag time there is.

Because GM does business with thousands of such suppliers, most of which are expected to communicate electronically with it, solution providers are seeing upstream business as well. Altair, a systems integration and consulting firm based in Detroit, is one such beneficiary. Suppliers typically see an advantage in electronically collaborating with the key automakers they do business with. That's because a process performed manually could take weeks or months to turn around.

"We have relationships with the major PLM players to provide direct integration," says Michael Kidder, director of corporate marketing at Altair. Those players include EDS, Dassault and PTC.

GM bills the integration as a key competitive differentiator. "This contains some real next-generation manufacturing and engineering capabilities that are going to really focus on getting our plants under much more control," Gutmann says. "The big things are our continued focus on quality and continued improvements of product launches and productivity."

Kidder, who counts most of the major tier-one automakers as customers, says there's some legitimacy to that claim.

"We're seeing the talk, and we're seeing the trends, but GM seems to be putting action in place right now," he says. "They are actually getting ahead of the curve right now because they've been rather aggressive in pushing this down to the suppliers, and they've been aggressive about funding the implementation of these connectors that are necessary between the CAE system and the CAD system."

For example, the adapter into GM's iMan browser is a key differentiator for GM right now, Kidder says. "To make this stuff work, there are lots of component pieces to the software itself," he says. "A lot of these meetings will usually be two or three suppliers all trying to connect together to make things work, and they have their subsuppliers. So there's a big trickle-down effect."

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