sealPurdue News

September 26, 2002

GM designs digital future for its cars – and future employees

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – General Motors Corp. is changing how it makes its vehicles – and, even more significantly, how it prepares its next generation of engineers and technologists to design and build cars to compete in the global economy.

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To do this, GM and its corporate partners, EDS and Sun Microsystems, have created a program called PACE, the Partners for the Advancement of CAD/CAM/CAE Education. The three corporate giants have been providing hardware and software for computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering of automobiles to universities all over the globe. To date, the commercial value of the in-kind gifts has topped $1.3 billion.

The latest recipients of a PACE contribution, 1,205 software packages, with a commercial value of $116.1 million, are Purdue University's Schools of Engineering and School of Technology. The gift was announced today (Thursday, 9/26).

This corporate-educational partnership is at the leading edge of a trend of higher levels of high-tech cooperation between companies and universities, says Frank Colvin, GM vice president for fuel cell activities and Purdue engineering alumnus.

"In the mid-'90s, the vehicle development process required 40 months," Colvin says. "These powerful computer platforms have made it possible to reduce the development process to 18 months, and we're now aiming for 15 months in our new vehicle development programs."

Professors and students at Purdue are ready to go – virtually.

Patrick E. Connolly, an associate professor of computer graphics in Purdue's School of Technology, says: "We're already exposing students, from freshmen to graduate school, to this software. Some of our students have jumped on it and become very adept."

Other automakers have different design and engineering computer platforms, so Connolly is careful to point out that he isn't teaching his students just to run software in his classes.

"We don't teach software at Purdue," he says. "We teach the application of software to problem-solving in the production environment. The expertise is in the design, in using the tool to build a product in the right way."

The digital design process is variously called 3-D solid modeling, math-based solid modeling or constraint-based modeling. Because the information is digital, the CAD database is at the center of all parts of the digitally empowered company – from design to engineering to manufacturing to marketing.

Such databases allow a variety of employees to access information and offer input throughout the product development process. Think of it as digitally knocking down departmental walls.

And because the design information is digital, it is "webcentric" and accessible in real time from anywhere. This makes it ideal for the globally competitive car business, which may be doing its engineering in Detroit, exterior design in Singapore and manufacturing in China.

The software also enables GM to do "predictive engineering," and product life cycle management. This means designers and engineers can plan and control the release cycle of successive models of a car all the way to obsolescence. That's the big picture.

Then, there's the little picture. The Unigraphics software alone consists of dozens of modules, including such processes as milling, drafting, sheet metal design and assembly modeling.

Connolly says that just as this digital information and access to it are breaking down walls within companies and between companies and suppliers, it will force higher education to become a more interdisciplinary educational environment.

"Our goal is to simulate, in the university, the world we are sending our students into and prepare them for the future," he says. "At the same time, we want to connect our classes with those in other academic areas to create a more robust educational environment."

So at Purdue, for example, engineering students could use the software to design a car part. Mechanical engineering technology students could then reconfigure the part as needed for efficient manufacturing. Then Connolly's computer graphics students could take the engineers' work and modify the design for aesthetics.

PACE provides a competitive advantage to Connolly and his Purdue colleagues. GM has invited them to Detroit to introduce them to the design and engineering software that the company is using to build its vehicles now and in the future. Purdue professors and students also will participate in GM-specific projects with GM content experts, which will likely lead to greater research opportunities as well.

GM's Colvin refers to the PACE-Purdue relationship as "a long-term partnership that will lead to a multitude of collaborative opportunities in the future." GM is one of the top employers of Purdue graduates.

GM's competition has different digital design-engineering-manufacturing platforms, but Connolly says there are enough significant similarities so that he is not worried about turning out one-dimensional students. In fact, similar design and engineering systems are going into place in virtually all manufacturing companies.

"Nothing can exist in a vacuum today," he says. "It has to be cross-disciplinary, both in the academic and the real world."

In addition to Purdue, the other universities involved in the PACE program are: Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, University of Missouri-Rolla, Tuskegee University, Kettering University, Northwestern University, Prairie View A&M University, Virginia Tech, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, Queen's University, Instituto Politecnico Nacional, the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Toluca, Monterrey and Mexico campuses), Universidad Iberoamericana, the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

GM has selected seven additional institutions in North America and Europe as future PACE locations. Long-term plans target many countries and continents around the world where GM has operations. Ultimately, PACE will include about 50 universities.

The PACE gift celebration is part of Discover Purdue Week, during which the university is unveiling its fund-raising campaign. Events during the week include other campaign gift announcements, Homecoming, groundbreakings, Bill Cosby's campus show and Boilermaker football.

Writer: Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Sources: Andrew Schreck (for Detroit GM sources), (586) 492-3582; (248) 894-3836 (cell),

Patrick E. Connolly, (765) 496-3943,

Related Web site:
PACE Partners home page

Related story:
$116 million PACE gift puts Purdue students in drivers' seats

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Broadcast-quality audio from the PACE announcement will be available at Advance video B-roll of students and employees of Allison Transmission Division of General Motors in Indianapolis and Purdue students using PACE software is available by contacting Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077, A satellite uplink of the B-roll and gift announcement on the Purdue campus will be available at 3 p.m. (central time) Thursday (9/26). The coordinates are SBS 6 TRANSPONDER 6; U/L: 14147.500 MHZ HORIZONTAL; D/L:11847.500 MHZ VERTICAL; ALLOCATED BANDWIDTH (MHZ) 43.000.

Purdue University School of Technology students work on computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering software. The software, valued at $116.1 million, was given to Purdue by the Partners for the Advancement of CAD/CAM/CAE Education (PACE), a partnership among GM, EDS and Sun Microsystems. (Purdue University News Service photo by David Umberger).

A publication-quality photograph is available at

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