A few of my colleagues in the industry say we're crazy to undertake such a huge effort. It has never been done, and they say we won't be successful, but we'll be very glad to prove them wrong," Richard Riff, director of Ford Motor Co.'s C3P Project office told Ward's Auto World in the summer of 1996.

Speaking recently at a major computer industry conference in Atlanta, Mr. Riff sounded very glad indeed to prove the skeptics wrong. In 1996 Ford started two vehicle development programs using the new C3P product development software. In 1999 there will be more than 40 programs, he reports; by 2000, more than 60, including Jaguar, Mazda and other joint-venture vehicle development programs.

Called one of the world's largest and most comprehensive product data management (PDM) implementations, Ford's C3P system manages engineering data, coordinates workflow, and helps widely dispersed facilities, groups, divisions of Ford and supplier companies collaborate in designing and engineering vehicles.

The acronym combines the three "Cs" of computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing and computer-aided engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) with yet another acronym: product information management (PIM). It is designed to be a new easy-to-use technology in a single system for designing, simulating, testing and optimizing vehicle manufacturing electronically, long before physical prototypes are constructed.

Insiders say more than 800 Ford suppliers also are using the software at various development stages.

The steady progress not only is a feather in Mr. Riff's cap, but it's also a vindication of sorts for software developer Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC), Ford's partner in this giant undertaking. Back when the deal was announced, some independent analysts and competitors sniped that SDRC was a relatively small company and might not be up to meeting the demands of its huge new client.

"Our goal is a single data model accessible from anywhere in the world, with geometric, design and business information easily accessible through a web browser. This will make accurate, up-to-date information available to people such as designers, analysts, and production planners as well as parts, service and dealers," Mr. Riff told over 1,000 attendees at the eighth annual Product Data Management (PDM) conference in late April. The conference is hosted by CIMdata Inc., a computer consulting and market research company.

He describes PDM as the "glue" holding the C3P program together by managing data on Ford's extensive web of intranets between its facilities and extranets connecting the OEM to its supply chain, which now contribute over half the value of a typical Ford vehicle.

Mr. Riff says data sharing enables engineers to more efficiently re-use vehicle designs and manufacturing tooling, better rely on digital mockups to integrate subassemblies, study product performance and improve communication and collaboration throughout Ford and its huge network of suppliers.

"In this way, PDM is a strategic initiative for achieving our business targets of maintaining high quality, shortening cycle times and reducing costs," says Mr. Riff. "The cost of implementing such an ambitious program certainly is significant. But we simply can't afford not to implement PDM," Mr. Riff tells the audience.

It sounds like ancient history now, but in the mid-1990s Ford was under siege by Wall Street and industry critics. Although its U.S. factories were ranked among the most efficient in the world, Ford's slow and complicated product development processes were stifling profits and crushing its bottom line.

The final straw was when word leaked out that it spent a whopping $6 billion developing its Mondeo/Contour/Mystique small cars while other automakers were spending a fraction of that on similar programs.

That led to the implementation of Ford 2000, the automaker's sweeping effort to shave costs, combine its global engineering operations and chop the time it took to develop a new car or truck from 36 months to 24.That in turn begat the huge and controversial computer systems program known as "C3P" billed by Ford as "the largest computer-based technology transformation in history."

At the heart of the change is Ford's decision to scrap its in-house product development software that it is has used for 25 years - known as PDGS - in favor of new software developed by SDRC. When it was signed three years ago, the five-year, $200 million contract was one of the biggest deals ever in the CAD/CAM/CAE industry.

At the time, other companies, including General Motors Corp., Boeing Corp. and what was then Chrysler Corp. had made similar moves. In the late '80s GM began a five-year "C4" program, which curtailed in-house software development and whittled the number of outside CAD/CAM vendors from about a dozen to what is now only one: Unigraphics Solutions Inc.

Chrysler phased out its in-house system in the 1980s in favor of Dassault Systemes' CATIA software. The former Daimler-Benz, Chrysler's merger partner, also uses CATIA.

While C3P shares many elements of these programs, it is believed to be more comprehensive and broader in scope.