DETROIT - General Motors made a discovery when it launched its cluster of mid-sized sport-utilities.
At the same time that it built three new vehicles - the Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada - GM gained insight into computer modeling.
The carmaker also stretched its expertise on the computer-aided design of assembly lines, got a major platform to try its family of inline engines and covered ground in supplier involvement during development.
Only about 10,000 of the sport-utilities have been delivered to retailers, said Tom Wallace, GM vehicle line executive for mid-sized trucks. But the project demonstrates that GM is serious about building products more efficiently, he said.
'We believe it's going to push and pull the entire industry to new levels of partnership and innovation,' Wallace said, speaking Tuesday, March 6, at an Automotive Press Association reception in Detroit.
Wallace, the top executive on the team who developed the sport-utilities, said the design and engineering work was 80 percent completed on computers before a 3-D clay model was made.
In past development projects, designers typically spent three months perfecting a life-size model out of clay before engineering began.
Because of the sport-utilities' success in computer simulation, project engineers produced a clay model in 24 hours. And they did so only to validate the computer models and help themselves visualize the products.
'You still want to see it in 3-D,' Wallace said. 'Will clay ever go away altogether? Twenty years from now I'll bet there's no clay.'
The success in computer modeling was enough to allow GM to satisfy three federal safety tests on vehicle structural requirements using computer models, rather than conducting them in the real world.
'It blew us away how well we were able to use that tool,' Wallace said.
Computer-aided manufacturing tools also allowed project engineers to design all of the factory workstations involved in producing the vehicles.
All of the tools, as well as the factory layouts on the project, were 'designed on the tube,' Wallace said.
The project gave its suppliers more say than normal. By using the recent technology of hydroforming - which shapes steel tubes with water pressure - Budd Co., the project's frame supplier, helped create the vehicles' design.
The technology helped GM combine the chassis of the various models on the platform, which meant fewer manufacturing variations. That will be important as variations of the vehicles - including an extended wheelbase version and the production version of the Chevrolet SSR - go into production.
That design issue will lead to a 20 percent increase in manufacturing productivity on the platform, Wallace said.
The hydroformed side frame rails also require no welding seals. That eliminated 25 to 30 pounds from the vehicles' weight.
Elsewhere in the pickups, Visteon Corp. developed a rear-seat DVD display system, and another supplier used multiplex wiring to eliminate 1,000 feet of copper wiring from the sport-utility, Wallace said.
The Oldsmobile issue
The extended version of the sport-utilities will appear within the year, Wallace said. The length will allow for a third row of seats. Other versions of the vehicles also are planned.
Wallace said there is uncertainty over the future configuration of the three vehicles, since GM announced Dec. 12 it will kill Oldsmobile.
While declining to say whether a different GM brand might pick up the Bravada, Wallace said GM plans to produce the Bravada for Oldsmobile retailers as long as they are in business. 'The timing was tough, but the Bravada's going to stay,' he said. 'The dealers want them. They're ordering them.'