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General Motors Corp. executive Bob Lutz said Tuesday that U.S. automakers could streamline their design process if American engineers were trained more like their Asian and European counterparts.
"We are actually training our engineers to be managers while the rest of the world trains them to be doers," Lutz said during a speech at the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. GM announced last week that Lutz was stepping down as GM's North American chairman to focus full-time on global product development.
Lutz said Asian and European engineers are trained in drafting and can draw a new design on the spot when they run into problems. U.S. engineers often need to call in designers to do the drawing and may take weeks to figure out a solution, he said.
"It's somewhat bureaucratized, and it's a slow process," Lutz said. "It's because we don't have the bone-deep understanding of what's in there and the ability to draw and model without pulling in a bunch of specialists."
Lutz said fewer youngsters grow up working on cars and playing with Erector sets, which give them the intuition they can't get from computers or mathematical models.
"Today everything is prepackaged and ready to go," Lutz said. "Worse yet, a lot of the tinkering that used to be done on cars is now prohibited by federal emissions regulations, in that everything is tamperproof."
Lutz said GM has been trying to combat the problem with a three-year-old program that trains engineers, including some in the middle of their careers, to do their own drafting.
"It's going to take a while to get all our engineers through this program, but believe me, it's going to be worth it," Lutz said.
Lutz said engineers also will be helped by the company's new global focus. For too long, he said, GM's geographic divisions have been run as entirely separate operations. Last week's management shuffle was part of the new focus, Lutz said.
Lutz said GM's new mid-size Epsilon platform, which is being developed by a global team, is another part of the strategy. The platform will be used for different vehicles around the world.
"We can no longer afford to do engineering and design several times over around the world," Lutz said.
GM has been struggling this year in the U.S. market, where sales are down 3.8 percent for the year. Last month, the company slashed its earnings forecast for the year and announced second-quarter production cuts.
In an effort to boost the company's identity, GM announced Tuesday it will be putting the GM badge on all vehicles - including Saab, Cadillac, Saturn and Hummer brands - in the North American market starting in the 2006 model year.
GM shares fell 25 cents to close at $29 in Tuesday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, near the low end of a 52-week range of $27.98 to $50.04.