Assembly line




When project managers develop a shiny new vehicle for production, every step requires decisions and tradeoffs—from heating systems to trim to headlights. On the assembly line, vehicle manufacturers bring together upwards of 6,000 parts per vehicle. It takes a detailed plan to keep everyone on track so what comes off the assembly line is consistent with expectations. Regardless of industry, key project players can benefit from a close look at the automotive vision.

In the highly competitive automotive industry, project management begins with a lengthy design process that involves a broad range of functions within the automotive companies and extends ever deeper into the supplier base. Because the design process repeats itself frequently, planning for new models can, to some extent, follow the same road map used for previous models. But each new design has unique requirements, and adequate upfront preparation makes sure no critical steps are overlooked.

Upfront and Honest

“Advanced vehicle development starts with portfolio planning,” according to Ron Pniewski, vice president, planning, with General Motors (GM) North America. From the start, the Detroit, Mich., USA-based vehicle manufacturer assesses emerging market trends, competitive products and regulatory concerns such as fuel economy and emissions. Next, the portfolio is evaluated to identify areas where the company should expand or cut back.

When you change teams, you hand off to a person who wasn't part of the planning process, increasing the possibility of a breakdown in communication.


“Through this process, we have to conceptualize an actual vehicle while leveraging our many assets and our brand strengths,” Pniewski says. “When it comes to turning a concept into execution, we bring together all the functions and disciplines within GM. Then we put together a document of strategic intent—the must-haves and givens for the program—vehicle platform, the target plant and target market. We plug in rough business base targets and price points.”

Based on a clear understanding of the target market and the competition, the program goes through three phases of evaluation and development:

Address a range of style themes. Team members appraise engineering and manufacturing implications of each design theme along with feasibility of each business case.

Reduce the number of style themes to three to get a more detailed analysis. Each solution establishes key vehicle level dimensions and considers integration of existing components. Engineers generate solutions based on the program requirements and the business case.

Clinically assess three full-size models. Analysts use clinical feedback and a deeper look at the business case to select a single theme for the program. That chosen design is poised for vehicle program implementation (VPI).

Fine Tuning

Even though a vehicle design process is repeated often, it remains extremely complex, time-consuming and prone to communication gaps. GM recently announced a new approach to advanced vehicle development meant to shorten the development cycle through improved productivity, elimination of bureaucracy and focused decision-making.

As the vehicle line-focused system proved to be a sound business approach, GM realized it could be advantageous, from a project management point of view, to have essentially the same team stay with the vehicle development program from preparation through production, eliminating many handoffs. “When you change teams, you hand off to a person who wasn't part of the planning process, increasing the possibility of a breakdown in communication,” Pniewski says.

Because of the complexity of a vehicle concept program, the automotive industry must do massive up-front planning. GM's new initiative sets up one team to orchestrate the work and resources associated with the development of a new product idea. Then, the plan sees it through implementation.


In 1999, GM began looking for ways to shorten lead time from order to delivery from 60 days to 15. The top-to-bottom business scrutiny revealed a weakness in supply chain management (SCM). Because of the sheer size of its supply chain, GM didn't want to outsource all its business to one company. The answer was Vector SCM, a joint venture between GM and third party logistics provider CNF Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., USA.


Jim Commiskey, vice president global services with Novi, Mich., USA-based Vector, describes the joint venture as a lead logistics provider. About halfway into full implementation of the joint venture, he cites initial business case savings exceeding $100 million.

Vector needed to break the huge global supply chain into manageable pieces. “We began by redesigning and optimizing inbound parts from suppliers to GM assembly plants,” says Commiskey. On outbound vehicle shipments to dealers, GM wanted better visibility of product end-to-end. “Once you see the network, you can identify problems and opportunities and work to make it more efficient while reducing inventory and carrying costs,” he says.

Using its internal business process management system, Vector examines the business case on each process and determines opportunities. Then GM and Vector assign two champions—senior members of Vector management, one each from GM and Vector—who knock down roadblocks in corporate and help push the business case forward.

Honda uses cross-functional teams to review the design's impact on manufacturing and possible safety and assembly concerns

Honda uses cross-functional teams to review the design's impact on manufacturing and possible safety and assembly concerns.


In addition to this guaranteed continuity, GM also makes sure key stakeholders are involved from the start. While team members from design, planning, purchasing, manufacturing, marketing and quality are matrixed to their organizations, they also participate in VPI.

“As smart as planners are, advance planning without all the disciplines is a mistake,” Pniewski says. “Some think having so many people on the team up front slows down the process. It actually speeds it up because you have a better solution and better buy-in. You have better continuity, less rework and fewer revisits downstream.”

At GM, an executive shepherds a program through fine-tuning both the physical product and the business case. “As we move from design to implementation, we refine it to more and more detail, considering manufacturing plants, components and features,” Pniewski says.

As each hurdle is overcome, the plan thoroughly addresses vehicle management and parts management. The detailed plans from previous VPIs are a tremendous advantage, yet each new design is a variation from a model change to an end-of-life change to an all-new vehicle.


Part of our philosophy is respect for the individual. We give our people multiple tools and allow them to use what works best for them.




The new model process is complex and highly detailed—and highly secretive—at Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. (HAM), based in Marysville, Ohio, USA, according to Dean Leroux, staff engineer responsible for technology development with HAM.

The design process starts with sales and design people. Much like U.S.-based GM, HAM looks at consumer likes and dislikes, safety and related issues. Once the design team has an image, manufacturing enters the process. “We see sketches or a clay model and offer our input,” Leroux says. “We use a crossfunctional team to look at the design's impact on manufacturing and problems that are likely to occur as well as safety and assembly concerns.”

For the top-level design process, where there is a need for standardization, HAM uses a fairly regimented proprietary model. “During launch, we have several levels of evaluation: Did we hit cost, quality and deliverable goals? Those are standardized to facilitate global communication.”

But as HAM moves through the development process and more groups become involved, especially in the manufacturing group, team leaders may choose from a number of tools ranging from Excel spreadsheets to sophisticated project management software. “Part of our philosophy is respect for the individual,” says Leroux. “We give our people multiple tools and allow them to use what works best for them.”

In the French automotive industry, a platform approach to vehicle design works best, according to Ian Stokes, a consultant with Metanaction, Vincennes, France, who works with Renault and PSA (Peugeot-Citroen). Eager to get each function, both manufacturers were involved early in the design process and grouped project teams together as a platform. The move to a platform, or development center approach, reduces confrontation between projects and functions and simplifies the design concept, says Stokes. Thus, groups of 2,500 to 3,000 people focus on solving problems associated with a platform. Project teams concentrate on customization based on the basic platform.

Stokes believes the most important moments of the design process occur outside the formal workflow charts. He sees straightforward collaboration in workshops and reviews, but this camaraderie is just as easy to achieve in coffee rooms. The most important step in this process is making each person on the team feel his or her opinion is valued and getting each to think beyond a functional area. “If an engineer understands his point of view will be listened to with regard to marketing, and he has the freedom to think laterally about problems, he might go to a showroom and listen to the point of view of a successful salesperson,” says Stokes. “Or the project team could listen directly to a group of customers instead of filtering everything through a marketing department focused on massive surveys and statistical analysis.”

Involve Suppliers

A successful VPI is likely to involve suppliers early in the process. At Honda, suppliers are involved with the purchasing and cost procurement people fairly early says Leroux. “During product development, there's a lot of back-and-forth activity involved. But as soon as manufacturing has a clear image of what we need to produce, we get input from suppliers. Even after we have a fairly solid idea, our suppliers can offer ideas for improvement.”


When suppliers add their own design work, the timeline builds on top of the automakers' plan. Inalfa Roof Systems' new-product design process takes two years after being awarded the contract. “All the automotive manufacturers give us is the shape and size,” says Mike Smith, executive vice president, business development with the Auburn Hills, Mich., USA-based maker of sunroofs. “We design the module into the vehicle for them: how big the glass and module can be, where to package the drain nozzle.”

As soon as manufacturing has a clear image of what we need to produce, we get input from suppliers.


For each project, Smith puts together his own cross-functional team with a dedicated project manager, team leader and designer along with representation from purchasing and advanced quality. Each team also has participants from sales, finance and manufacturing. Inalfa's suppliers work with the team from the beginning to make the design as efficient as possible.

But today, “as efficient as possible” is still a lengthy process in an industry increasingly concerned about shrinking process time, PM

Helen L. Richardson is a freelance writer living in Pagosa Springs, Colo., USA. After 11 years on the staff of Transportation & Distribution magazine covering broad business and supply chain issues, she retired as senior editor.




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