GM's Factory IT Faces A Test

General Motors' three-year IT overhaul aims to help the automaker respond more quickly to changing consumer tastes.

Mary Hayes Weier

June 19, 2008

8 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Anyone watching the plunging sales of SUVs and pickups can see why General Motors needs a manufacturing capability that can respond quickly to changing tastes. GM's IT teams have spent the past three years trying to help its factories do that better.

GM has spent that time overhauling the IT infrastructure that keeps 160 global plants churning. Now largely complete, the massive undertaking included standardizing software and processes at every plant, updating networks, and creating four command centers--in the United States, Latin America, and Europe--each designed to let experts look into any GM factory around the world and help get idled production lines back up faster.

Kirk Gutmann, GM's CIO of manufacturing and quality, met with InformationWeek at the company's Lansing Delta plant in Michigan in his first press interview about the effort. Broadly, the overhaul's goal was simplification and standardization. "Simplicity brings with it higher uptime and lower costs, and lets you focus on innovation because you have a common backbone to plug into," Gutmann says.

(click image for larger view)IT's top job: keep them workingview the image gallery

The global rollouts of two standardized software applications--a product routing and tracking system, which helps ensure that specific vehicles, down to the paint color, are produced as planned, and an in-plant order management system, which links suppliers into the assembly line--come at the right time. GM is looking at how it can make changes on the production lines at its plants more deftly to react to shifting consumer tastes. Case in point: Just last week, GM said it would add an extra shift a month earlier than initially planned at an Ohio factory that builds its fuel-friendly Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 compact cars. Meanwhile, it plans to close four U.S. assembly plants that primarily make SUVs and pickups. Sales of the Cobalt are up 18% this year through May, while GM's overall U.S. sales are down 16%.

At the automaker's newest U.S. plant, in Lansing, Mich., a global model for GM built in 2006, the order management system maintains enough parts inventory to keep assembly lines running just four hours before new shipments are needed. To meet the deadlines, most suppliers have local operations from which they deliver several times a day.

Lansing Delta produces the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and Saturn Outlook, but it will likely take on more models at some point to meet consumer tastes, says David Scott, regional process information officer at GM. "With more lines, there are more options and more pain points," he says, which makes the routing and tracking system particularly important.

The standardization effort requires Gutmann to play it safe to some degree. He decided, for example, to take a pass on Windows Vista and standardize the company's 25,500 plant-floor PCs worldwide on Windows XP, a project undertaken in consultation with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "You have to go with convention," Gutmann explains.

The automaker must walk a fine line between commonality and squashed inspiration. "Having commonality on a global basis is where GM thinks it's going to win," says Sean McAlinden, an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research. On the IT side alone, that saves money in volume purchasing, training, and the ability to react more quickly to IT crises that could stall plant operations. "There is a trade-off," McAlinden says. "As plants develop common best practices, how can anyone do anything new if they can't learn something and pass it on?"

Gutmann doesn't see things that way. A plant down for just an hour is considered a serious financial problem at GM, so above all, his top job is to keep the plants running. The Lansing Delta plant alone pumps out 900 vehicles a day over two work shifts. GM's infrastructure consists of some 500,000 devices, including the 25,500 plant-floor clients; 3,500 servers; 14,000 network switches, routers, and access points; 11,000 printers; and 373,000 robots. So commonality's key.


IT infrastructure includes 25,500 plant-floor clients; 3,500 servers; 14,000 switches, routers and access points; 11,000 printers, 373,000 robots

Simplify and standardize environment, to improve reliability, flexibility

New recovery plan, as well as equipment

50% cut in production stops due to IT

GM has replaced or upgraded most of its Cisco-based network worldwide and is in the process of driving voice over IP. Nearly 56 million square feet of plant floor worldwide is now equipped with 22-Mbps wireless networks, enabling, for instance, the use of wireless pendants that let GM get newly delivered parts to the assembly line faster.

The Wherenet pendants, which are about the size of a deck of cards and hang from the ceiling, are correlated in a database to the parts and the location in the plant. When someone presses a button on a pendant, it sends a signal to the database. The database then alerts drivers on tuggers, which are small trucks equipped with wireless PC terminals next to their steering wheels, about what they need to pick up, and the pickup and delivery locations. After retrieving the order, drivers confirm the delivery on their PCs.

Gutmann is willing to try new technologies--slowly. GM is considering new video applications using its new network capabilities, for use among employees and with customers via the Web. It's borrowing from consumers and experimenting with ZigBee, a low-power wireless communication technology, and the Bluetooth personal wireless network technology for some plant tools and machines. But Gutmann is cautious: "We're not going to let Bluetooth go wild. We're going to walk our way into that one."

GM still has some work to do in the transformation, of which EDS plays a large role as part of an IT outsourcing contract worth more than $1.2 billion a year. Ninety-five percent of plants have the standardized technologies, and half are using the standardized business processes, Gutmann says. Now it's measuring results. In 2006 and 2007, the number of vehicles on which production ceased because of IT-related problems decreased about 50% over 2005, GM says. So far this year, the number of vehicles it has had to stop production on because of IT-related issues is less than 5% of the vehicles affected in all of 2005, the company says. Lost minutes on the network were down by more than 90% for both 2006 and 2007 compared with 2005.

GM created a process for responding to major technology problems that includes eight expert centers based in key plants and staffed with specialists of specific software applications, so people know where they can turn for help. The first line of defense is at each plant, but the four global command centers monitor and participate in solving IT problems and coordinate help from the expert centers. "If there's a virus or other problem, we have a lot of expertise here, from the Suns and EDSes and HPs of the world," Gutmann says. "Our top EMC person sits here in the command center."

In the main command center in Pontiac, Mich., past the security guards and down a stark white hallway, network specialists hover around large flat-panel screens, with other screens on the wall tuned to news and weather channels to track events that could affect plants, such as power outages and natural disasters.

Every morning, staffers at the global command centers do "health checks" at plants, hoping to avoid problems within the first two hours of operation caused by maintenance upgrades done during downtime. An AT&T management tool provides a view of the wide area network that connects all the plants, alerting staff to problems using color-coded icons. If the AT&T-operated WAN goes down, the plants are designed to support full vehicle production without WAN connectivity.

A monitoring tool GM calls Change Control Network, running on Microsoft Excel, keeps track of any IT changes at a plant, the potential level of impact on a scale from 1 to 4, and the description of what sort of risks a plant faces if something goes wrong with a change. The view into GM's network is so precise that from a command center, personnel can drill down into supplier links or monitor one of hundreds of thousands of devices.

IT isn't going to put an end to $4-a-gallon gas, fickle consumers, or global competition. But IT plays a part in enabling GM's responses.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights