AUBURN HILLS, MI — Claiming an industry first, General Motors Corp. has established a design studio that focuses exclusively on developing vehicle accessories.

Set up with supplier Plastech Engineered Products Inc. in February, the GM Accessory Design Studio in Auburn Hills, MI, employs about 15 people who work with suppliers and the nearby GM Design Center to develop aftermarket parts during the vehicle-development process.

“We used to just concentrate on offering functional parts — bed extenders, splash guards, floor mats,” says Nancy Philippart, executive director-GM Accessories, a division of GM's Service Parts Operations.

“We have really shifted to get into more appearance products — spoilers, grounds effects, wheels — and you can't do that without design help.”

Plastech, a supplier of interior, exterior and underhood components, has worked with GM previously.

Until the creation of the new accessories studio, stylists at the GM Design Center would be tapped to develop accessories. The new studio “allows us the consistency to do this type of work,” Philippart says. “We never had consistent resources before.”

In the first nine months, employees (Plastech personnel contracted by GM) have generated 150 accessory products, studio program manager Larry Sully tells Ward's.

Some of the creations will appear on four GM concepts (Chevrolet HHR and Cobalt, and Pontiac G6 and Torrent) at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. show in Las Vegas this month.

Only a few years ago, GM Accessories was “reverse engineering” its parts — developing a process to affix components to vehicles after the car or truck is on sale.

Integrating accessories design into the vehicle-development process, as opposed to reverse engineering a product once the vehicle is launched, will cut costs and improve customer satisfaction via reduced installation time and warranty coverage, Phillippart adds.

For example, an aftermarket grille developed by GM Accessories will undergo airflow analysis, and electronic-stability systems will be programmed to handle oversized tires.

Meanwhile, service is improving.

Phillippart recalls it took three to four hours for dealerships to install Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck running boards. That time was reduced to 15 minutes when the Chevy Avalanche SUT debuted in 2001, and pre-drilled holes were added to the Avalanche's frame to attach the running boards.

“This is an impulse-buy business,” says Phillippart. “So we've worked hard on same-day or next-day availability.”

GM Accessories already has a brochure of aftermarket add-ons ready for the '07 Chevrolet Tahoe fullsize SUV, which starts production in December. And Design studio workers are developing tonneau covers and ground effects for the next-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra fullsize pickups, expected to arrive in late 2006.

There is plenty of progress to be made. Less than 50% of GM's aftermarket parts were available when a vehicle was launched several years ago. “We've stated our objective is above 95%,” Phillippart says.

GM Accessories has about 4,000 parts numbers in its catalogue, a 300% increase from three years ago, but it is looking to significantly expand its portfolio.

“We're really not satisfied with we're at in electronics, as we still have some gaps in our wheels lineup, as hard as we've worked,” Phillippart says. “The only area I think we have covered well are the functional parts.”

Desperate for new revenue sources, GM has high hopes for its SPO operations. The auto maker estimates vehicle personalization in 2004 was a $31 billion business at retail (including parts and labor), up from $18 billion in 1998.