DETROIT - As Frank Ewasyshyn, vice president of advance manufacturing engineering for Chrysler Corp., sees it, there should always be a gap between product design and manufacturing.
Why? 'If the two groups agree on everything, that's not healthy,' Ewasyshyn said. 'If the design department is not pushing the envelope hard enough, then the customer will create the gap by going to somebody else.'
That gap was the focus of a two-year study by SAE. The results were released Tuesday, May 13, at the International Automotive Manufacturing Conference and Exhibition.
To no one's surprise, the vast majority of respondents - 90 percent - said a gap exists between design and manufacturing. That gap, which manifests itself as poor communication, results in costly changes late in vehicle development programs and production delays.
But the survey results seem to indicate that the Big 3 are making gains inside their operations. While the gap exists at all levels, there was more concern about the gap among Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers surveyed than respondents working at the automakers, said Bill Lowell, president of Business Development Directives of Milwaukee, which conducted the survey for SAE.
'The closer you get to the shop floor, the wider the gap,' Lowell said.
Joe Spielman, general manager of General Motors' Metal Fabricating Division, said: 'There's not much in there that we didn't already know. We've been working on those problems for a while.'
The study was done from October 1995 to March 1997. It involved telephone interviews with manufacturing professionals, focus groups with automakers and suppliers, and interviews with plant managers and with top executives at the automakers and Tier 1 suppliers.
The key to closing the gap, according to survey respondents and members of a panel discussion at the conference, is communication.
But fostering that communication requires a complete change in the cultures within the design and manufacturing worlds, said Dan Juliette, executive director of GM's Metal Fabricating Division.
'It was why we put Saturn together, to implement simultaneous engineering so that people are organized in different ways,' Juliette said. 'But just co-locating people is not the only answer.'
The implementation of simultaneous engineering and quality improvement programs over the past several years has helped automakers address the need to improve communication, survey respondents said. In that manner, automakers have not been looking to completely close the gap. Instead, the goal is to shrink and manage it.
At Chrysler, the challenge of maintaining the gap falls on the platform teams, which are charged with monitoring customer wants and needs, Ewasyshyn said.
'It's the team that finds the right answer,' he said. 'If it is doing its job of listening to the customer, the platform team is constantly challenged.'
GM's experience with forming Saturn, Juliette said, guided the formation of the automaker's vehicle development process and one of its key components - the vehicle line executive. 'Creative tension is a positive attribute for a team, but it needs to be managed,' he said.
And while Japanese automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are often lauded for their seamless design and production capabilities, it is not in Americans' culture to exactly duplicate their achievements, said Bob Becker, auto industry vice president for Rockwell Automation in Sterling Heights, Mich.
'It is our culture to be capitalists and to reward individual performance,' Becker said. 'The gap is due to the culture we live in. That's what drives us.'
Said GM's Spielman: 'All the people who are experts in both production and manufacturing you could probably hold in your hand. What's most important is that you put a culture into place to build a bridge between design and manufacturing. And it has to have lanes that go both ways at the same speed.'
Spielman noted that he now has manufacturing engineers working alongside vehicle designers at GM's design studios. (See story on Page 33F.)
'You need to put people together and have them focus on a mission,' Spielman said. 'The gap is going to make a better vehicle. It forces you to stretch.'