DETROIT -- It's the sort of late-in-the-game fiddling that for years has bogged down vehicle-development programs at General Motors: A designer repositions the headlamps. An engineer tweaks the decklid. A product planner lobbies for another cupholder.
No more -- or at least that's the idea behind a process installed by GM product chief Mary Barra aimed at quickening the pace of vehicle development and eliminating costly tinkering and delays.
GM calls the program, which started about a year ago, "front loading." It seeks to ensure that all of the key decision makers -- from design, engineering, manufacturing, purchasing and other areas -- nail down the major aspects of a vehicle program by the time the clay model hardens, or about 18 months ahead of launch. After that, changes are harder to make and can cost time and money.
In the past, tweaks to a vehicle's design or content might be pushed through as late as six months before a launch, says engineer Doug Parks, whom Barra elevated on Aug. 1 to the new post of vice president for product programs. Those late changes sometimes meant juggling supply schedules or costly changes in tooling.
"We're realizing that we can't continue to make changes to surfaces and vehicle content and powertrains late in the process. It drives extra costs into the program," says Parks, 51, who previously was the lead engineer for electric cars, including the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Parks says such fiddling happened during the development of the Chevy Cruze, which he worked on as global vehicle chief engineer. Designers were going back and forth on exactly where to place the cupholder in the center console.
"The time it takes to sit down in meetings and check with the suppliers and investigate the change -- all of that time and effort just took your eye off the ball," Parks says in his rapid-fire delivery.
Parks acknowledges that required changes will always pop up after the vehicle design and content is locked in. But he says those are happening far less frequently, which should allow GM "to bring that product to market faster."
The process is part of a broader effort under way inside GM's product development operations to cut costs and vanquish the decision-by-committee culture that has long plagued GM. It comes as CEO Dan Akerson pushes his team to reduce superfluous costs and complexity.
Former product chief Bob Lutz did much to speed decision making during his tenure, from 2001 to 2009. But insiders say last-minute changes still have been common.
The changes won't come seamlessly. Late-change requests happen for myriad reasons, such as a response to a competitor adding content to a rival vehicle.
"Say you're developing a vehicle that's going into the marketplace in 2017 and it needs to stay fresh until 2021 or 2022," says Ed Welburn, GM's vice president of design. "There's no other product in the world on which you have to make those decisions so early."
Still, Welburn argues that making those calls sooner "really helps us with the business case of the vehicle, and it will become far more profitable."