DaimlerChrysler hits accelerator on portal plans

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – DaimlerChrysler Corp. is preparing to open up an engineering portal to key suppliers by early next year as part of a strategy its CIO says could dramatically improve the way it makes cars.

The company

is already working with six suppliers in a pilot project, according to senior vice-president and CIO Sue Unger. Once the final rollout happens, the number of users will grow from about 5,000 to 20,000, she said. Unger discussed the carmaker’s plans as part of an executive symposium track at Comdex Fall 2002 on Tuesday.

Under said DaimlerChrysler turned to portal solutions not long after the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. four years ago. At that time, each of the many business units used a different bill of materials, she said, but the Web-based technology has allowed the automobile manufacturer to leverage its legacy systems instead of rebuilding them.

Engineers at DaimlerChrysler access the portal through a single sign-on that matches a user profile to govern their level of access. Last year, the company also launched a Material Cost Management (MCM) portal, which the Chrysler group uses to track and control cost reductions while facilitating collaboration between 54 component teams.

Based on Lotus Notes, the MCM portal has more than 6,000 users and contains about 100,000 documents in its database. A lot of these documents are design ideas; Unger said more than 570 of these ideas are logged each week. The idea is to use the collective brainstorming of its global workforce to drive commonality among vehicle components. For example, at one point Chrysler was using approximately 18 different fog lights in its vehicles. Through the ideas polled in the MCM portal, it has shrunk that number to nine. Unger said this would lead into approximately $7 million in savings over a two-year period.

“”Technology can be your wheels, but you are the one in the driver’s seat,”” Unger said, adding that the MCM portal was deployed in less than a month without the help of outsourcers. “”That was a core competency I wanted to develop in my team. And you know what? It’s not that hard.””

Unger’s advice to spend on IT only where there is proven business value was the mantra of many other senior IT executives at Comdex this year, including one of her peers. In another session, General Motors Corp. CIO Tony Scott said he was investigating many of the conference’s most promising trends, but he wasn’t necessary diving head-first into any of them.

“”Web services aren’t the answer for every problem we have,”” he said, referring to one of the most popular topics at Comdex. “”We’re not going to rip out the stuff we use to run the factories to put in Web services, but certainly there’s potential for benefit in some of our consumer-facing areas, like our mortgage people.””

While Unger is using IT to drive down the costs of DaimlerChrysler’s business, Scott said GM is exploring how much technology it should actually put in its cars. Possibilities include Web-driven services that build on its OnStar service, which combines global positioning with wireless technologies to deliver personal services, including roadside and emergency assistance and directions. On the other hand, don’t expect to see keyboards or other peripheral devices connected to the dashboard. “”You won’t be doing Control-Alt-Delete while you’re driving down the highway,”” he said.

Unger said DaimlerChrysler determines its IT spending by getting savings out of its infrastructure first, then looking for technology projects that could enhance the organization’s productivity. Perhaps as a result, she said her budget hasn’t been cut back despite the overall downturn over the last two years.

“”We were very lucky,”” she said. “”We didn’t have any big increases in my budget (during the late 90s), so I didn’t have the big swing back down.””

In July, Unger’s group launched a third portal for to keep track of its IT components like APIs, standard software and best practices. The next step is to add licensing capabilities and hosted chat sessions, she said. In the meantime, DaimlerChrysler hopes to further bring down costs by consolidating its data centres to four regional sites.

Comdex Fall continues through Friday.

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