The Advanced Design Studio on General Motors’ massive technology campus in Warren, MI, feels like a Silicon Valley software startup from the halcyon days. Three six-meter “power walls” snake across one section of the room, displaying far-larger-than-life, 3-D projections of vehicles in progress, for everyone to examine and dissect.In a dimly lit corner of the room, engineers, designers, digital sculptors and software programmers sit side by side, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer screens. Alan Rhodes, vehicle model manager of the studio, addresses the Smart Board, a 127-centimeter flat-panel computer display synchronized with the power wall. With the tip of his index finger, he maneuvers 3-D sketches of upcoming GM vehicles around the screen, alternating between views of the Chevy SSR (Super Sport Roadster)-a retro-styled convertible pickup truck unlike anything GM has ever built-the Pontiac Solstice concept car and a new Hummer called the H2.
Designing and displaying vehicle models in software is a relatively new capability for GM, the world’s largest manufacturer of cars and trucks. Just a few years ago, all sketches were created by hand and stapled to a display board for review. Clay or hard Styrofoam models had to be sculpted for each new design.
Now, with all 14 GM engineering centers digitally synchronized via a corporate intranet and all using standard computer-aided-design software and 3-D simulation tools, designers in Holden, Australia, Russelsheim, Germany, and North Hollywood, CA, can collaborate around the clock. Most important, the new technology allows GM’s senior management to review fully realized designs in a far timelier manner than ever before.
“We’re using the technology they used to make Toy Story,” Rhodes says, referring to the hit film digitally animated by Pixar Studios. “With this, we can get feedback right away. We integrate real people into the animation so that we can check spatial relationships within the cockpit of the vehicle.”
Indeed, Rhodes points out that several recent hires have come from the motion picture industry. “We used to hire strictly fine-arts majors and automotive-design grads,” he says. “Now we’re recruiting computer game designers and people from the film industry.” To get his team’s creative juices flowing, Rhodes sometimes runs films such as The Matrix on the power wall during lunch hours.
None of the cars whose high-tech images flashed on the power wall resemble your father’s Oldsmobile-or Chevy, Buick or Pontiac. But this is not your father’s GM. The Advanced Design Studio is part of one of the largest technological overhauls in corporate history. All told, the $180 billion automotive behemoth has invested more than $1.7 billion in Internet applications while eliminating 3,500 older, or legacy, information systems. By renovating its bloated and outdated technology infrastructure, GM has become nearly unrecognizable as its former self and, without much fanfare, changed nearly a century’s worth of automaker tradition in Detroit-and, possibly, the world.
Vehicles that once took four years to design and build are now being created in 18 to 21 months, as GM pushes for greater efficiencies and quality. The company is now introducing a new vehicle every 23 days. That translates to twice as many annual product launches as at any other period in its history. The cumbersome and expensive physical processes of model building and crash testing have been streamlined by the introduction of digital simulation technology. The technological changes even seem to have unlocked designers’ creativity, once the victim of GM’s overwhelming bureaucracy, resulting in a generation of cars and trucks with radical designs.
Such rivals as Ford, Daimler/Chrysler and even Toyota, which was long renowned for its homegrown and efficient product design process, have made similar commitments to technology. But GM is clearly leading the way, according to Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for the research firm Gartner. “Even compared to the Japanese,” he says, “GM has been the most aggressive company in using technology to change business processes.”