General Motors is boosting the number of suppliers involved in its product data management (PDM) IT network by 300 percent this year as it seeks to cut model development times.
By the end of 2000, around 1,200 suppliers will be linked into the system, up from 300 at the moment.
The PDM system links with GM's Unigraphics design system to allow concurrent engineering and computer-aided design (CAD) operations to take place across GM and supplier offices worldwide.
'Without a well-integrated PDM/CAD environment, you cannot do concurrent design and engineering; you cannot do digital mock-ups. They simply will not work,' says Heinz-Gerd Lehnhoff, engineering information officer at Adam Opel AG, GM's European subsidiary.
But even though the technology to design and engineer much of a car development program on a PDM/CAD system exists, many in the industry still oppose its use, says Lehnhoff. They need to start accepting that digital representations can be trusted in an engineering and design environment, he says.
The information systems carmakers use for engineering, designing and manufacturing new models have undergone a revolution over the past few years. The ill-matched combinations of CAD, computer-aided manufacture (CAM) and computer-aided evaluation (CAE) systems that had built up over the previous 30 years have been systematically replaced by a single software platforms. Driven by the need to reduce the lead times for new model development, the vehicle manufacturers have opted for optimum performance of the total design process, rather than the isolated pockets of excellence they had before.
Standardizing all these systems on one software platform does not pose any functional constraints, says Lehnhoff. 'All the major [software platform] systems in the world will support the engineering required to design a car. When one [system] moves ahead with certain features, the time lag for the others to catch up is short,' he adds.
The Big 3 US manufacturers have, by some coincidence, each selected a different type of single software platform. Ford chose SDRC, in a program known as C3P. The Ford plan is to complete the migration of all vehicle programs to C3P by the end of this year. DaimlerChrysler has adopted Catia software. And GM has gone for Unigraphics.
Today, GM operates about 10,000 Unigraphics licenses worldwide and the whole company has now migrated to the software. Lehnhoff claims Unigraphics is the leading system by a margin of 5-10 percent. The feature that sets Unigraphics apart from the other systems is the way the design capability integrates with the PDM system -in GM's case, called iMAN.
This is the system that manages the complete bill of materials for the vehicle, including model variants, derivatives and options, and associates the geometric data with a multitude of other details relating, for example, to purchasing, manufacturing and maintenance.
Today, GM has 700 concurrent usages of iMAN but that is growing rapidly as more and more suppliers are being brought into the manufacturer's loop, so that they too can work with the GM database. So far, GM has installed 300 iMAN seats with suppliers and this is due to grow to 800 by the autumn, and to 1,200 by the end of the year. Product and engineering suppliers are being brought in first.
In Lehnhoff's view, PDM is the key to improving and shortening the product development process, and already some current programs at GM are working on an 18-month development schedule. It may be more difficult to cut down the number of physical prototype stages, he believes. The problem is not that PDM does not allow a digital vehicle development process - it does.
The problem is the attitude of some people in the industry. Lehnhoff says: 'The mindset of the people has to change. They have to be able to accept digital representation and believe in digital design analysis results - for example digital crash tests.'