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GM's Factory IT Faces A Test

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.

IT's top job: keep them working

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IT's top job: keep them working

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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.

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