DETROIT - Last year's merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG combined two companies with distinct product development systems.
Mercedes-Benz built vehicles with cutting-edge technology and high quality. Chrysler used the latest computer tools to develop new models rapidly for high-volume markets.
Now, as DaimlerChrysler AG executives sort out whether and how to combine the approaches, the automaker is going ahead with a new Chrysler Development System for North America.
The system has been in the works for 18 months - since well before the merger. It relies heavily on the latest digital design and development technology. More important, perhaps, will be putting the same technology to work in improving communications among U.S.-based DaimlerChrysler engineers and suppliers. The goal: a more efficient system for building vehicles faster, cheaper and with higher quality.
'The main thing we're trying to do is align people's thinking,' said Donald Goodwin, DaimlerChrysler AG's director of the Chrysler Development System. He spoke last week at a meeting of supplier executives in Troy, Mich.
Despite their differing approaches to product design, Daimler-Benz and Chrysler adopted the same CATIA product design technology before the merger. The system is marketed through a partnership of IBM Corp. and Dassault Systemes SA of France, the developer of CATIA software. Suppliers that do business with DaimlerChrysler must use this technology.
NEW LEVEL OF TECHNOLOGY
CATIA is a label for a range of software that handles product design, simulates the function of parts, organizes engineering data and provides communication among engineers and designers working collaboratively in different locations.
The Chrysler Development Sys-tem is filtering into programs under way to develop the new Jeep Cherokee and a stretched PT Cruiser with all-wheel drive. By model year 2003, all newly designed Chrysler vehicles will be brought to market under the new product development system, Goodwin said.
To launch a new vehicle, Chrysler has required 25 to 30 weeks to reach full production on two shifts, Goodwin said. He compared that with the launch of the redesigned 1998 Honda Accord, which got up to volume production in four to five weeks. A faster launch means getting hot new models into showrooms when demand - and pricing - is strong.
At Chrysler, a fragmented design, development and tooling process often had suppliers building parts for the same system, such as a door, on different schedules. Even though suppliers used computer design tools, the overall progress of the system might not be coordinated. As the launch deadline approached, complications often surfaced. Last-minute engineering changes from Chrysler engineers aggravated suppliers. And the entire process took on a panicky urgency.
Or, as Goodwin put it: 'Why do we always have fire drills at launch?'