Commentary

The Detroit Three are going through gut-wrenching restructuring and still have more to do.

But getting rid of their legacy costs merely will put them on equal footing with other auto makers.

Wouldn’t it be smarter to invest in an information infrastructure that ensures the American auto industry becomes the global leader in design, development and manufacturing of sustainable transportation?

We need a new system that plays to America’s strengths: an open-source, Internet-based, interactive, information portal for anyone and everyone in the automotive community. Yes, it would allow foreign auto makers and suppliers to use it, too. And they likely would end up developing portals for their own countries.

But if such a system first emerges in the U.S., it would give the country an enormous head start, at a time when climate and energy-security are forcing cars and trucks to go through the most comprehensive technological change in a century. Whoever gets there first will dominate the automotive industry for a generation.

There is a grassroots effort involving people from the U.S. auto industry that is trying to do just that. For now, the concept is being called Product Creation 2.0. It encompasses all aspects of creating a product, from the initial spark of an idea all the way through product launch and manufacturing.

Envision an auto maker having an information portal that allows it to tap into the institutional knowledge of its global supply base, in real time, as part of the daily routine of developing a new car or truck.

Such a system would provide an auto maker with the latest ideas and technology while still in the concept phase, a time where critical tradeoffs, if made early, can be made cost-effective and implemented quickly.

Picture a small job shop that just landed a contract to stamp panels that require a deep draw, where the steel is stretched farther than normal, and it’s running into problems because the steel is tearing.

Imagine if this job shop could turn to an information portal where it could quickly tap into the knowledge of experts, academics and even retirees to solve the problem that day.

Nearly 100% of the value that’s generated in creating an automobile takes place in the product-development process. Yet, 80% of all activities in the documented North American PD processes represent waste.

PD involves thousands of people, from thousands of companies, working on thousands of components and doing it from locations scattered around the world.

As a result, there are many overlapping activities, miscommunications, trial-and-error efforts, meetings, learning curves, more meetings and an overall lack of transparency. This kind of waste gets magnified in today’s 24/7 industry.

The technology exists to eliminate much of this waste. The problem is that it can’t be solved by any one auto maker, industry association, university or government. It only can be solved by all of them working together, and we need a federal effort to spearhead such an undertaking.

The U.S. has never had an industrial policy that specifically targets the health and growth of its automotive industry. Product Creation 2.0 could be the backbone of such a policy, yielding tangible results in just a couple of years. The benefits would spread well beyond automotive.

If ever there was a time to undertake this kind of endeavor, this is it. It’s a legacy that could pay off for all of America for decades to come.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.