Changes in computer systems usually don't rate as hot news in the auto industry, but if ever there was a big story in this acronym-crazed area of automotive engineering, this one is "man bites dog." The scale is enormous, the potential rewards are huge, the risks are substantial.

"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," says a confident Richard Riff, manager of Ford Motor Co.'s C3P Project Office.

It's all summed up with that one little acronym -- C3P -- which combines the three "Cs" (Computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) with yet another acronym: product information management (PIM). It signifies a massive restructuring of Ford's product-development processes that will use new software and a new PIM system to combine all elements into a global system of common information that can be accessed by Ford engineers and suppliers throughout the world.

"C3P represents 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," says Paul Blumberg, Ford director of Product Development.

An outgrowth of Ford 2000, the automaker's sweeping effort to have costs and combine its global engineering operations, company officials expect C3P to chop hundreds of millions of dollars from the No. 2 automaker's much-criticized product-development costs and shave the time it takes to develop a new car or truck from 36 months to 24.

It will have a major impact on people as well as processes, dramatically changing how more than 8,000 Ford engineers and product designers do their jobs. At least 25,000 other employees, plus tens of thousands of engineers at suppliers, will be affected indirectly. On top of that, 3,000 to 5,000 contract engineering and technical positions will be eliminated by the end of the decade. Ford officials say the jobs of a small number of full-time Ford employees also will be cut through attrition.

At the heart of the change is Ford's decision to scrap its in-house-developed product-development computer software that it has used for over 20 years -- known as PDGS -- in favor of new software developed by Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC). The five-year, $200 million contract is believed to be one of the biggest deals ever in the CAD/CAM/CAE industry.

"At the time it was developed, PDGS was an outstanding, unique product," Mr. Riff says. However, he explains that like most older software, it is merely an electronic version of old-style 2-dimensional drafting. The latest software allows engineers and designers to create much more detailed and realistic 3-D drawings, and it has become the province of highly specialized companies.

Other companies, including General Motors Corp., Boeing Corp. and Chrysler Corp. have come to similar conclusions. In the late '80s GM began its five-year "C4" program, which curtailed in-house software development and whittled the number of outside CAD/CAM suppliers from about a dozen to only two. EDS Unigraphics now dominates at GM.

Chrysler phased out its in-house system in the 1980s in favor of Dassault Systems' CATIA software. Last year it announced a further enhancement: a Digital Manufacturing Process System (DMAPS) that allows engineers to build tooling and robotic assembly stations complete with the knowledge of how they fit into the flow of all manufacturing operations.

Mr. Riff won't comment directly on GM or Chrysler programs, but he says C3P is more comprehensive and broader in scope than either. "It's a huge effort," he affirms, adding that three major new vehicle programs will be launched during 1996 using the C3P system. By 1997, all new Ford product programs will incorporate the new technology. Engineering productivity is expected to improve 35% to 40% as a result. C3P also is predicted to chop prototypes costs by 35% to 40% as well.

But whenever massive change is involved, there are big risks, too. Many Chrysler engineers rejected CATIA at first because they didn't want to learn a complicated new computer system, and they despised Engineering Chief Francois J. Castaing for forcing the Switch. Many new vehicle programs fell behind as a result.

Suppliers, who are steadily taking on more computer engineering work from OEMs, also are reluctant to take on added software and training costs of yet another system.

And some outside experts note that SDRC is a small company that could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of its huge new client.

Mr. Riff is well aware of potential problems, but he says things are going smoothly so far. He adds that the new SDRC software is so user-friendly and rewarding to work with that resistance is not a problem.

"Some people find it (making a change) hard to do," he acknowledges, "But they are not resisting. The best proof I have is that the training classes are 100% overbooked. People want to be there."