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GM gears up with collaboration based on Web services

May 26, 20036 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsProgramming Languages

Automaker drives down costs with EDS tool.

General Motors is bringing new vehicles to market faster with help from E-vis, a real-time visualization and collaboration tool based on Microsoft’s .Net implementation of Web services.

General Motors is bringing new vehicles to market faster with help from E-vis, a real-time visualization and collaboration tool based on Microsoft’s .Net implementation of Web services.

Kirk Gutmann, GM’s global product development information officer, laughingly admits that he took “a flyer” when he made an early commitment to .Net and Web services. But it’s a gamble that seems to be generating impressive gains. As a result of its new emphasis on real-time collaboration (of which E-vis from Electronic Data Systems [EDS] is a linchpin), GM’s new-vehicle engineering times have dipped as low as 18 months from the previous average of 40. Assembly-line defects have dropped 25%, GM says, and inventory costs have dropped 20%.

How does it work? An engineer at GM’s Powertrain division changes the cylinder head of the company’s Ecotec 2.2-liter engine to improve oil flow. The change is minor, but because the engine is GM’s first genuinely global effort, valve-train suppliers in North and South America, Europe and Asia must be kept in the loop.

Previously, an event like this would have launched a flurry of e-mail messages, phone calls and face-to-face meetings; chances are, several suppliers would have sent representatives to Detroit. But with E-vis 4.0, the Powertrain engineer can send the pertinent Unigraphics CAD/CAM data to all parties that need to see it. Even if they lack a high-end Unigraphics system, suppliers can view the data on a PC, make any changes needed to their valves and share the updated information with GM.

Cutting product development time is key, says Kevin Prouty, research director for automotive strategies at AMR Research. Automakers have a shrinking window in which to meet consumer demand for low-production, high-profit vehicles, such as Chevrolet’s new SSR hot-rod pickup.

“In a way, GM is betting the company” on product lifecycle management (PLM) tools from EDS. The core of the product development process is a company’s engineers and the tools they use; E-vis is a way for GM to inexpensively extend that process out to partners, he says.

The ground floor

When you’re evaluating products, it never hurts to be the Fortune One, as GM workers proudly call their employer. In January 2001, Gutmann met with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a debriefing on .Net. Gutmann then contacted Charles Grindstaff, product president for the PLM division. EDS, which was in the process of revamping its visualization and collaboration tool, has “seen the writing on the wall,” Grindstaff says, and it spelled Web services. “We wanted to work more on application functionality as opposed to being in the plumbing business.”

While developing E-vis 4.0, EDS PLM worked closely with GM on workflow, features and implementation issues, Grindstaff says. It was a good test because GM users are spread around the world with suppliers ranging from large companies to mom-and-pop operations.

From early 2001 until late 2002, GM used an earlier version of E-vis. Late last year, the company moved to Web services-enabled 4.0 running on a prerelease version of Microsoft Windows Server 2003. GM intends will complete the move to E-vis 4.0 and Win 2003 this month.

Gutmann’s team decided real-time communications could be improved through such measures as instant messaging, but that swapping CAD/CAM files was an unrealistic goal for the automaker’s smaller Tier 2 and Tier 3 partners. “If you’re a large, strategic supplier, you’re already using GM’s CAD/CAM system,” AMR’s Prouty says. “The problem is smaller companies, many with no IT organization. E-vis lets them communicate with GM, too.”

It does this by building on the JT format, a de facto industry standard for sharing and visualizing lightweight data. E-vis lets users visualize JT data on anything from a PC to an immersive virtual-reality environment.

To allow for data-sharing across such a range of hardware, E-vis 4.0 makes use of the protocols that underlie Web services, such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) for message encapsulation; Universal Description, Discovery and Integration registries; and languages XML and Web Services Description Language.

The automaker’s Powertrain division has a supplier with facilities in both Chatham, Ontario, and Juarez, Mexico. Previously, Powertrain engineers “would drive [from Detroit] to Canada every other week to go through specifications and check parts for interferences,” says Diane Jurgens, GM’s director of global CAD collaboration and visualization systems. At least a couple of team members would fly to Juarez “at least once a month,” she says.

Now the supplier has downloaded E-vis 4.0 at both facilities, and that travel has nearly vanished. GM Powertrain engineers and supplier representatives all can view GM’s Unigraphics data in real time. On the Microsoft client side, XML and SOAP are used (for Unix workstations, Sun’s SunForum data collaboration tools). The T.120 videoconferencing data collaboration standards are used for conference control.

Jurgens says all parties simply could e-mail files back and forth, but they would lose the real-time effect; the files tend to be massive; and “e-mail’s not sufficiently secure,” whereas E-vis 4.0 makes use of the Secure HTTP.

The bottom line is that engineers in three nations in North America routinely can discuss and change Unigraphics design specifications in real time.

The automotive giant also is developing a dealer-facing program that relies on the Microsoft technology. Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst at Gartner, says, “GM is working on a .Net-based portal for their dealer network.” The portal, called DealerWeb, will give the company’s 14,000 dealerships access to a variety of applications, such as online auctions.

Gutmann is taking Web services one step at a time; “We’ll explore [.Net- and Web services-related] opportunities as they make sense,” he says. “They’ve got to add value, and you’re going to need the right security model in place.” He says much of the company’s implementation work focused on the design of security services – data sharing, authentication and what Gutmann calls a demilitarized zone, accessible to all parties.

Analysts say that within GM, culture and complexity might prove to be the twin enemies of E-vis. Despite decades of technological advance, face-to-face collaboration remains the norm in the automotive industry. That’s partly because of tradition, but it’s also a practical necessity in many cases.

“You’ve got thousands of suppliers’ products in any one car,” Koslowski says. “There’s a real learning curve when you’re trying to make sure all the right people are collaborating online.”

Nevertheless, real-time collaboration appears to be the inevitable wave in manufacturing, and GM is merging into the fast lane.