Up Ahead: Dream Machines Made to Order

From Reuters

Imagine going to a vehicle-ordering booth, selecting the color, body style and features of your new car and returning three days later to take delivery.

Sound far-fetched? Not in the brave new world of “agile manufacturing.”

Auto makers, armed with powerful computers capable of transmitting data from dealerships to the assembly line floor in a microsecond, are starting to talk about a new era in which flexible assembly operations would build highly specialized vehicles in a matter of days.

It may sound like a car shopping fantasy, but in today’s market of personalized license plates, individual greeting cards and fast-food restaurants that allow shoppers to have it their way, auto makers say the “virtual automobile” may be an idea whose time has finally come.


“The agile enterprise concept seeks nothing less than to redefine the automobile and the automotive industry,” Kenneth Baker, head of General Motors Corp.'s Research and Development Center, told reporters at a recent industry conference.

“The years of high-volume, long model runs or high-volume, long part runs are probably starting to go away,” Baker said. “We’re going to have to be more competitive at lower volumes.”

Under the current production system, car makers can alter a vehicle’s appearance by adding a second pair of doors or tacking on a few options. But for the most part, buyers are limited to a handful of option packages that can be installed on a car without slowing the assembly line.

However, by working closely with suppliers, Baker said, GM can expand the options to include things such as personalized seat covers, dashboard displays and an almost endless choice of colors.


For example, if you’re an avid tennis fan, you could have a picture of yourself playing tennis sewn right into the seat cover.

Initially, Baker said, most of the customizing choices would be confined to interiors. Over time, car buyers could have steering, suspension and braking systems tailored to their personal habits.

“As we get more software and computer control into the car, we can program it more personally in those areas that differentiate it,” Baker said.

But assembly plants would have to be extremely efficient to make sure all the parts arrived in time.


“Let’s say for a moment that all Chrysler’s component and assembly plants were tooled as equipped to handle this kind of flexibility,” said Dennis Pawely, executive vice president of manufacturing at Chrysler. “We’d still have to rely on the supply community, which provides about 70% of content.

“Can we realistically take suppliers who are on a just-in-time delivery schedule today and say that now you are going to deliver against a ‘real time’ order and inventory system and expect them to succeed? Probably not.”

GM’s Baker acknowledged that the “virtual car” is still more than a few years away, but he said some car makers are already offering personalized features in efforts to attract customers.

“In today’s market, and in the future, you have to excite the customer about the product you sell,” he said.