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Design and Conquer

While GM’s new cylindrical, steel and glass Renaissance Center tower in downtown Detroit may serve as headquarters for this revival, much of the company’s new ideas take shape at the technology campus in Warren. Down the hall from the Advanced Design Studio is GM’s Virtual Reality Lab, another dimly lit theater equipped with a wraparound, floor-to-ceiling display wall and special 3-D glasses that GM executives don at design reviews. This is several generations removed from the quirky 1950s version of 3-D projection. Here, a visitor receives a virtual look at the new Chevy SSR from various distances and angles. The digital images are so realistic that sunlight and trees reflect off of the SSR’s exterior. Visitors feel as if they can reach out and touch the front grill of the new pickup. Properly positioned, one can occupy the virtual space of the driver’s seat and get a sense of the interior or use a sophisticated joystick to tool the prospective vehicle through simulations of downtown Las Vegas or the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The Virtual Reality Lab, built in 1999 and now linked digitally to GM studios overseas, allows Lutz and his charges to collaborate on product reviews with colleagues across the world. These virtual reviews helped GM designers find an existing platform-the GMC Envoy sport-utility vehicle-upon which to base the SSR pickup, thus saving months and millions of dollars in building clay models. According to Szygenda, the SSR moved from sketch to production in less than 18 months. The entire project was done virtually, up until the construction of a show car.

With its shorter production cycle, GM is much more responsive to changes in consumer tastes. Five years ago, it lagged well behind industry averages in product development. A car slated for the market in 2000 had to be initiated in 1996 or earlier, forcing design committees to gaze into crystal balls to determine what their customers would want in five years. More often than not, they guessed wrong.

The combination of GM’s daunting bureaucracy and clunky manual product-development processes also spawned dated, unappealing vehicle design. Executives would often see just one design option for a prospective car or truck. If they recommended a change, it could take months to build a new physical model and get sign-off from manufacturing that the updated version was buildable. Most original designs were redone 50 times before they reached the marketplace, adding years to the process and rendering the initial concepts unrecognizable.

And if creativity is the end, the new technology may be the means. “The idea is to give flexibility to the designer on the front end and build technology that organizes the thought processes that permit creativity,” Szygenda says. Not only can designers display dozens of options to senior management, but they can also respond to data gleaned directly from dealers and customers via the Internet. By monitoring buying preferences on GM Buy Power, for example, engineers develop a far better sense of what customers actually want. The company has even experimented with the online design of a vehicle aimed at a younger audience into extreme sports. Iterations of the design were posted online, and prospective customers proposed modifications. While the car was never actually manufactured, designers were able to tap into the minds of potential drivers. “This is a lot better than trying to figure out 48 months in advance what you think customers will want,” says Robert M. Ottolini, GM’s executive director of engineering process and math strategy.

Actually building and testing those designs before they appear in showrooms is another reason for GM’s considerable investment in computer-aided engineering and simulation. The digitization projects are intended to overturn the ponderous “build, test, break” model that it had employed for decades. The goal is eventually to replace all vehicle dynamics and crash testing with digital simulation. Ten years ago, for example, 80 Chevy Caprice test cars had to be built and plowed head on into walls in order to ensure their crash worthiness and to meet other federal regulations. The process was time consuming and-at a cost of between $500,000 and $1 million per test vehicle-expensive. Today, with digital simulation replacing physical testing, the number of test vehicles is down to 10 or fewer, saving at least $35 million per product, despite a steady increase in the number of regulated tests required by the federal government.

“We wanted our engineers to spend more time analyzing vehicle dynamics, crash tests, handling, noise vibration and things like that rather than building models,” says Kirk Gutmann, GM’s global product development information officer. In order to support all this simulation, the company increased its supercomputing capability, provided by Hewlett-Packard and IBM, by 1,200 percent.

The result is unprecedented excitement and enthusiasm within the product development group. “When engineers are looking at 12-month design cycles, it’s a lot more exciting,” Ottolini says. “From the time you start working on a design to the time your neighbor can buy the vehicle is not that long. People like that.”

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