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Car Designs Ride On Collaboration

General Motors wants suppliers involved in the design process to balance workloads, reduce costs
The creation of an automobile offers a proving ground for whether collaboration can improve the design-and-building process. At the top of the supply chain, one of General Motors Corp.'s most effective uses of collaboration technology comes in vehicle design.

GM's engineering-collaboration system has grown from 100 users a few years ago to more than 16,000 today. The design system, powered by Unigraphics' i-man software, connects 11 of GM's 14 global design groups and lets them easily share huge CAD/CAM 3-D drawings. "It's a cost-and-speed issue," says Kirk Gutmann, information officer for global product development. Not only does the system let groups use the same components in different vehicles, it lets groups from different regions work together on a project, balancing workload.

For instance, the automaker is building a car for the Brazilian market. The work is split between design groups in Russelsheim, Germany, and S?o Paolo, Brazil, with one doing a standard version and the other a hatchback. Such collaboration has shortened the design cycle from 36 months a few years ago to 18 months today.

GM is also focused on collaborating with its suppliers to cut the time it takes to receive components and to reduce the cost of inventory in its pipeline. Through initiatives such as Covisint LLC, a supply-chain platform owned by the Big Three automakers, it has reduced customer order times from 60 days a year ago to 40 days, with a goal of 15 days to 20 days. Part of that collaboration involves bringing suppliers into the design process, which is important as large suppliers take on increasing responsibility for designing large parts of a vehicle. The same tools that GM engineers use to review designs can be used to interact with suppliers.

Yet suppliers can't just piggyback on the efforts of the large automakers. That's why they're creating their own innovations to work with their network of suppliers. At ArvinMeritor Inc. in Troy, Mich., participation in Covisint is critical for the supplier's relationship with the Big Three automakers, to which it sells directly as a Tier One supplier.

But that's just a start. Yomi Famurewa, ArvinMeritor's senior director of IT supply-chain product design, says Covisint isn't the kind of seamless supply-chain tool into which ArvinMeritor can simply plug itself and its network of suppliers to manage its entire supply network. Instead, ArvinMeritor is focused on two parallel efforts. It's continuing to build its internal tools, including a private trading platform called the Supplier Design Exchange, which provides project-management and data-management tools for its suppliers, and lets them know how they're doing by tracking delivery times and other performance factors. At the same time, ArvinMeritor is building a link between the Supplier Design Exchange and the larger Covisint network, a connection it will pilot in about six months.