Last year's merger by General Motors Corp. of its North American Operations and International Operations isn't the automaker's only effort to cut time from its notoriously slow product development cycle.

GM hopes to decrease costs and increase responsiveness by spending about $900 million annually on computer tooling used for design, engineering and manufacturing in vehicle programs. Eventually, as GM continues to harmonize its computer development globally and with suppliers — an advantage Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler Corp. have held over GM for years — the automaker hopes to save $200 million on each vehicle development program. GM already has cut its product development time from 36 months in 1995 to 24 months currently. And it will start an undisclosed 18-month program this year, says GM President and Chief Operating Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr.

“It's a huge piece of our business and one that's right in the midst of what I've been talking about when I say we want to be fast, focused and innovative. This is right in the middle of it,” says Mr. Wagoner.

And it's only starting to take hold, adds Mr. Wagoner. “Our products today don't reflect a lot of what's going to be coming (from the use of computer math-based tooling),” he says.

Since 1995, about 7,200 worldwide engineering employees have been trained on GM's core CAD/CAM system, Unigraphics. The global Synchronous Math-Based Process allows GM to reduce the number of physical validation it builds because designers can sketch vehicle concepts on computers by using a styling support program called Alias. In manufacturing, GM can weed out production bottlenecks before facilities actually are built by observing assembly lines and factories simulated through virtual reality.

Jay Wetzel, vice president and general manager for the GM Technical Centers, says GM improved engineering productivity by 13% in 1997 and will improve another 30% over the next three years.

“We are moving rapidly toward the concept of a virtual vehicle where we can assemble, view and simulate the performance of a vehicle and the associated manufacturing process without having to build a physical prototype,” says Mr. Wetzel.