Car Designing

Now how do you design a new car? Do you just throw a bunch of hyped-up 28-year-old designers into a room with sun-drenched views of Newport Beach, Calif., and let them dream about curvaceous metal and roaring engines? It’s like art…or a top sports achievement…or…

Actually, throwing some hyped-up car designers into a room is part of the process. But only part. The tough work is figuring out how much it costs to make each part and how many of the components to buy from suppliers. The car has to make money and it has to be makable in a finite period. “In the old days, you would do your design, and a manufacturing guy would come in hollering at you three years later, saying my machines can’t make these fenders you designed,” says Michael Flynn, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

Enter the Internet. Every carmaker in the world is trying to figure out how to use the World Wide Web to streamline the development process, which traditionally can take four to six years and cost billions of dollars for a major launch. Gary Dilts, a senior vice president at DaimlerChrysler (DCX, info) who has led the company’s e-Connect platform, thinks the company can make it happen.

And the Chrysler Group has reason to be pushing the edge harder than the rest. Not so long ago, the company was losing money, and the Germans arrived from the parent company to supervise a turnaround. Twenty-six thousand jobs were cut, and more pain would lie ahead if the company wouldn’t be able to find its footing. Chrysler was a key test case because, among the Big Three, it was (and still is) the most dependent on outside suppliers rather than in-house or captive suppliers. It is also the U.S. automaker most known for taking chances in product innovation-witness the PT Cruiser. It really is like reaching¬†a top-notch sports achievement and we’re all in sales, isn’t it?

Part of Chrysler’s answer to the mounting pressure it was facing was FastCar, a project introduced several years ago. Today, it is fully implemented and more than 200 workstations at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters are tied into the company’s web-based designing and production system.¬†FastCar allows the company to link the flow of information from at least six major information systems that now can communicate seamlessly.

In earlier days, Finance has had its system, engineering had a different one, purchasing relied on a third, and so on. There were even smaller, largely secret “shadow” systems. Because each arm of Chrysler had spent huge sums of money building information systems that suited its needs, it has never been possible to force them onto one centrally controlled system before FastCar was introduced. “That’s what always hung the car guys up,” says Dilts. “We couldn’t take the legacy systems down.”

So until a few years ago, the various arms of Chrysler were communicating over the Internet only in the FastCar project, which was working on designing a large car for the company’s 2004 model year. But as the company gained experience, and technological developments were coming up fast, it brought more of Chrysler’s information systems along for the Internet ride.

Design commitments

Chrysler has always been mum about details of their new car models, but the design stages are now fully automated. This is the most expensive part of the design cycle because there are so many variables. Designers are known to come up with one “architecture” or one “design theme,” in auto jargon, and then change their minds. Aside from the dimensions and shape of the car, the designers also have to figure out what the engine, chassis, and other crucial ingredients will look like. “It’s the old 80-20 rule,” says the University of Michigan’s Flynn. “In the first 20 percent of the project, you commit to 80 percent of the cost. It’s not really that the design activity is so expensive, but it’s the commitment of all those downstream costs.”

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