Profiles: GM’s Future in His Hands?

Here’s how J. Douglas Field, vp of Design and Engineering and Chief Technology Officer of Segway, sees the challenges and opportunities of product development. Know that he spent some time working in auto, so his ideas are not totally on the bleeding edge of development.

Rarely does the future of an industrial giant ride on the success of a single product line, but that just might be the case at General Motors, as the struggling auto maker waits with baited breath to see if customers will reward it for its newest line of full-size SUVs and pickups. The GMT-900 line represents the most profitable line of vehicles for GM, not only because big trucks have been a financial mainstay for the company for the past several years, but because each additional vehicle derived off the platform generates thousands of dollars in direct revenue. To highlight just how important these vehicles are, GM’s senior management met with the full-size truck team in the summer of 2005 and directed the team to speed up introduction of the vehicles, to which the team obliged via a six-week early launch. The pressure was grueling for the GMT-900 design team, including its leader, John Cafaro, who moved to the truck team after designing the C5 Corvette in 1997. “Failure is not an option on these products,” Cafaro says. “Maybe you can do a lesser Buick or lesser Chevrolet and people aren’t going to hunt you down, but this is like being in the Super Bowl and you’ll maybe have one shot at it as a player.”

To say there’s a lot riding on Cafaro’s designs would be an understatement. GM has nine plants dedicated to production of GMT-900 derivatives, with thousands of hourly workers in the balance. That’s why this program was much different from that of the low-volume Corvette. “We couldn’t blow up the plants and the body shops. We had to retain the things that were good in the GMT-800 and move them into the 900,” he says. “We also wanted to keep building the 800 as long as we could, because bringing those plants down for any extended amount of time costs a lot of revenue.” The designers had to work hand-in-hand with manufacturing to assure the program would remain on budget and on the slimmed down timetable (the pickups will arrive on the market in late-2006, compared to the early 2007 timeframe originally projected). “We had to carryover a majority of the weld points. Manufacturing worked in lockstep with us to assure we lived up to that.”

With the challenge of working within the existing manufacturing footprint, Cafaro says his team also was tasked with making all three of the SUVs—Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade—unique, while improving overall refinement and quality. “Our mission really was focused on the refinement and quality. We also wanted to clean the design up. We really put the sheet metal on a diet,” he says. He received full support in obtaining enough funding for three specific sets of fenders, hoods, headlamp and fascia designs, along with brand-specific cockpits. The interior, in fact, was another critical area where designers had to raise the bar, since the previous generation trucks represented “the old way of doing things in GM,” with cost and parts-sharing taking precedence over refinement and creature comforts. Cafaro says he coordinated the interior design team to begin its work at the same time as the exterior team, allowing both to interact and assure brand-specific themes were carried into each vehicle. The interior team benchmarked a number of European and Japanese SUVs, including the Volkswagen Touareg and Lexus RX330, along with a few passenger cars, most notably the Audi A8 and A6.

Summing up the designs, Cafaro says the volume-leading Chevrolet Tahoe has more of an athletic look, thanks to its “very thick forehead and barrel-chested profile through the hood.” He sums up the ’07 Escalade as “more of an Escalade with less parts. We spent so much time on the jewelry, like the headlamps. It’s all about detail, detail, detail.” So, what about the GMC Yukon, which has a history of being just a rebadged version of the Chevy? “We concentrated on the locomotive headlamps, which have been pushed out far to the corners, while the rugged think 20-in. wheels really make the Yukon stand out.” There’s no doubt this new family of GM SUVs is a radical departure from the GMT-800 line. But Cafaro and his team aren’t done yet. They’re now focusing on derivatives of the GMT-900 line, including Z-71 and Platinum trim packages. “We have a lot of stuff up our sleeves for the 900 still,” he says.

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