The concept of "one stop shopping" is an overused phrase in the automotive supply business, but Lamb Technicon Body & Assembly Systems is putting a different spin on the concept.

Just as Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc. aim to deliver entire interiors to automakers, Lamb Technicon wants to take over its piece of the action: design, construction and installation of assembly and welding tooling.

Instead of growing the business simply by acquiring other tooling suppliers, though, Lamb Technicon is shopping further down the food chain in an effort to reduce some waste and finger-pointing inevitably a part of tool and die development.

Warren, MI-based Lamb Technicon, a subsidiary of Unova Industrial Automation Systems Inc., is a long-time supplier of robotic assembly, welding and metal-forming systems used to produce car and truck bodies. These are the burly machines that clamp and spark and turn raw sheet metal into hoods, doors and strong metal bodies-in-white.

Although not glamorous, assembly and welding systems - so-called "hard tools" - are among the most expensive elements in vehicle-development programs. Industry sources say they account for 55% to 60% of total car program costs.

The dies used to stamp out sheetmetal body parts are also costly elements and require long lead-times in car body manufacturing. Weighing as much as 65,000 lbs. (29,000 kg) each, die development and construction traditionally takes about 18 months.

Typically sheet metal dies, stampings and welding assembly tooling are produced by separate companies that sometimes don't communicate well. Then, if the doors of a new vehicle don't fit properly on the assembly line, each company promptly blames the other for the problems. Precious time is lost while they argue over who's at fault, and dies and tooling are tweaked or rebuilt.

Unova is trying to eliminate the waste, expense and time these miscues cause by taking over and controlling much of the vehicle body development process, from early die prototype development through the design, construction and installation of the assembly and welding equipment.

Last September Unova acquired Modern Prototype located in Troy, MI. More recently, it formed an alliance with Salem, OH-based Sekely Industries, a producer of production dies for automotive bodies. Together, the three organizations have combined resources to offer automakers a concept they call "Single-Point Management" for integrated body, die development and assembly equipment.

"We can now directly link body prototyping, die making and body assembly tool design into our production systems engineering process to help our customers bring vehicle concepts to market faster," says Charles E. Wolfbauer, Lamb Technicon's president. "We believe our new strategy will result in faster development of dies and assembly equipment that more precisely matches finished parts, reducing both capital expenditures and operating costs."

Lamb officials say these new engineering partnerships - coupled with sophisticated computer-simulation technology - should enable them to slash typical die development and construction times from about 18 months to 12 months or less.

"Software simulation can cut die development time in half," says Frank Mei, vice president and general manager of Modern Prototype. "We can simulate die results to within 95% of actual conditions before we incur the expense of making a finished die."

With information gathered in the prototyping phase, Lamb and Sekely Industries evaluate die designs to predict the behavior of sheet metal for each part. The two companies also can recommend the optimal size and shape for sheet metal blanks for each car body part. This helps guide automaker purchasing negotiations with steel mills, potentially saving millions in raw material costs.

After the simulation of each die is complete, Modern Prototype shares computer data files with Sekely, which uses the information to create finished dies.

"Our single-point management process assumes many of the traditional risks and responsibilities of die development," says Mr. Mei. "This ensures communications and coordination throughout the process. This is supply-chain management," he adds emphatically. "We're not just growing bigger; we're adding value by eliminating waste and getting to market faster." o

Ford's C3P on Schedule

"C3P," Ford Motor Co.'s ambitious program to redo its computer engineering systems, is running on schedule, the automaker says. Billed by Ford as "the largest computer-based technology transformation in history," the project is about halfway complete after two years of frenetic changes.

An outgrowth of Ford 2000, the sweeping effort to shave costs and combine global engineering, company officials expect C3P to chop hundreds of millions of dollars from product-development costs and reduce product development time from 37 to 24 months.

At the heart of the change is Ford's decision to scrap in-house product development software it had used for more than 20 years - known as PDGS - in favor of new software developed by Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC).

Fifteen vehicle programs are under development at Ford using C3P. The company expects a 25% gain in productivity in design engineering by year's end.