GM puts IT in the driver’s seat

Jan. 10, 2008
The Detroit automaker finds that fewer is better when it comes to CAD and IT systems.

How many IT systems does it take to make a car? In the case of General Motors Corp., the answer used to be over 7,000, whether for dealers, finance, manufacturing, or product development. That was before the automaker got religion about efficiently managing its computer files. It has now whittled down its IT footprint to a mere 2,400 systems says Global Director of CAD and Visualization Detlef Bielohawek. His team is part of an internal GM organization called Information Systems and Services (IS&S) that was started in 1996 by GM’s Group Vice President and Chief Information Officer Ralph J. Szygenda.

From many to one
GM’s efforts at paring down its IT systems are indicative of a trend within big OEMs. The quest is to make IT resources more manageable and speed up operations as well. “Formerly, GM had a total of about 30 CAD programs,” says Bielohlawek. “Engineers used different software in the U.S., Europe, and Brazil. Even individual departments often purchased and ran different programs. Today, IS&S manages software development and directs suppliers that keep the technology running. Our users, or what I call ‘the business,’ reside in 19 design and engineering centers in 16 countries that span 10 time zones. Users sit in front of over 28,000 workstations, building geometries and generating or consuming data to create, engineer, and manufacture vehicles. Now, though, they all use the same single, core program.”

IS&S based its selection of CAD/CAM developer UGS on a GM benchmark done in the late 1980s. “We then sat down with the firm and brainstormed about what a typical automotive company would need, and also talked to our engineers and designers,” says Bielohlawek. “Data management became a huge requirement while migrating information from 30 programs to one. So eventually we moved all data management to Oracle-based PLM software from the same developer. Over the years, it took several migrations to move to the one program.” After GM figured out its software requirements, UGS wrote the code and the programs eventually became commercial off-the-shelf software.

Synchronizing CAD databases
GM organizes vehicle development into what the company calls architectural development teams, which are not based on brand or geography, says Bielohlawek. “This has largely eliminated duplication of efforts by the old regions. Today, for instance, a car might be designed in Germany, but manufactured in different areas of the world. In this scenario, car components hidden from view, such as the chassis, are considered part of the vehicle’s basic architecture, while visible parts are locally and uniquely designed. Each team takes charge of a certain architecture for a group of vehicles,” he says.

For example, North America handles the architecture for SUVs and luxury vehicles, while Asia handles it for small vehicles. Europe does so for compact and midsize cars. Body design takes place in a widely used industrial-design program that stores files in JT, an open format used by other OEMs including Ford, Chrysler, Porsche, and Toyota.

“Like in the old days, when GM was paper based, the PLM stores product-data information along with a revision number,” says Bielohlawek. “Production engineers can reconfigure this data to organize assembly processes and create virtual assembly lines. For instance, the underbody comes separate from other sheet-metal parts. So the assembly software might show the underbody alone, and in the following sequence, a side panel being attached. ‘Walking’ along the virtual assembly line shows the vehicle in different stages of completion. Robotic-programming data can even be derived from this information. This sort of data reuse helps make product development more efficient.”

Were GM to implement a new compact car, the architectural team in Europe would architect the vehicle complete with American and European options, and then share the data with worldwide engineering sites through the local databases with configuration management. The combination of CAD/ CAM and PLM lets designers located anywhere look at options that might include engine and power seats for cars sold in America, and a manual gear and different seats for cars sold in Europe.

Engineers work with each other through an application-sharing program, also from the same developer. “Team members meet at scheduled times in what we call a virtual reality room,” says Bielohlawek. “One wall is a big screen controlled, say, by the European designer. Vehicle components he brings up on the screen are what display, in real time. Members might discuss, for instance, good elements about a design and what needs changing. Collaboration like this saves the company a lot of time and money while helping the business with the influx of new ideas.”

In addition to CAD/CAM, PLM, and application sharing, GM also uses a UGS-coded program that synchronizes the 19 center databases daily. The application handles more than 10,000 files daily. To help keep things in control, engineers must follow certain disciplined rules when they store designs, and use a data checker to ensure data meets quality standards. Suppliers must use the same CAD/CAM program and are granted access rights to the PLM depending on how tightly they are working with the OEM.

“What I think makes for IS&S’s logistics masterpiece is our Blockpoint process,” says Bielohlawek. “It lets us keep all CAD/CAM workstations and databases current and do worldwide upgrades over just two weekends. Outsourced suppliers that help us here include Electronic Data Systems Corp. for CAD and Hewlett-Packard for workstations and servers. IS&S also uses integration suppliers such as IBM and AT&T. They host and service systems, while IS&S controls vehicledevelopment processes, picks service times, makes sure all database dependencies are met, and also takes other IT and business considerations into account. Above all, we aim to upgrade systems with no lost engineering hours.”

What GM calls the “Cave” has a PowerWall on each side of the room. The walls allow the visualization and display of highresolution imaging applications. Displays are said to be so lifelike that individuals in the car seat often reach out to turn a “knob.”

What GM calls the “Cave” has a PowerWall on each side of the room. The walls allow the visualization and display of highresolution imaging applications. Displays are said to be so lifelike that individuals in the car seat often reach out to turn a “knob.”

GM engineers meet in a virtual-reality room. The glasses let them see the car image as a 3D model in stereo mode — that is, with depth. This gives viewers a much better understanding of the CAD model. In passive mode (used for more than one person), the glasses give one view of the model. In active mode (one person only), the glasses are connected via radio waves with a central pivot point. The virtual-reality system recognizes the position of the viewer’s eyes, so were he to, say, move them upwards, the image would move and the viewer could see the 3D model from underneath.

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