CHICAGO - By 1997, auto-makers and suppliers hope to link themselves on an industry network spun off the Internet, eliminating costly and overlapping private communication networks. With the new system - the Automotive Network Exchange - each automaker or supplier will need only one connection to communicate with its entire supply network, said Fred Hakim, a Chrysler Corp. employee working on the project.
Today, a full-service Tier 1 supplier might use a dedicated telephone line to talk to each of five or six automaker customers, and other gear to communicate with Tier 2 suppliers. The proposed network would replace that structure.
Will it save money?
``Absolutely,'' according to Jack Pokrzywa, an engineer with the Automotive Industry Action Group, the sponsor of the plan.
Pokrzywa said suppliers of plastic parts also will be using the system.
A pilot project is now being prepared which will involve both automakers and major parts makers.
``It will affect everybody who does business in the auto industry, regardless of what their area of expertise is,'' he said.
Suppliers and automakers regularly exchange huge, multimegabyte, computer-aided de-sign and manufacturing files. These electronic blueprints define parts under development, such as a new armrest or cylinder head.
``CAD/CAM files are the most intensive in terms of volume and performance,'' Pokrzywa said.
Files describing business transactions are smaller, but much more numerous. Auto-makers and suppliers order parts and describe materials, prices, inventories and costs by computer.
E-mail makes up the third major area of data communications.
Hakim and others on the Automotive Industry Action Group project team discussed their plans Nov. 14, during the Autofact convention held in Chicago.
``This plan leverages the existing facilities of existing service providers,'' said Joe Boyd, the Ford representative on the project team.
The network would use existing telephone company wiring and cables, for instance.
The Big Three are behind the push, but the global nature of the supply base ensures that the network also would be available to non-U.S. companies.
A network overseer will be selected in 1996, said Pokrzywa. The overseer would be a professional company, such as those that manage commercial online services. For example, Prodigy and CompuServe hire separate companies to manage their operations.
The overseer will have several responsibilities, including managing the network, collecting usage fees and guaranteeing the quality and security of the service providers, which will be companies like MCI or AT&T.
The design for the network resembles the hub-and-spoke strategy used by the airlines.
At the center of the infrastructure is a central exchange point, which would act as the clearing-house for messages and information sent between automakers and their suppliers.
Automakers and suppliers would pay connection fees to make the network self-funding, Boyd said. All network users will be required to use the same computer protocol - rules for communication - that is used on the Internet.
The protocol is called transport control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP.
The project team had considered using the Internet itself for the auto network, but it worried about reliability and security, Boyd said.
The private network can be made more secure than the anarchical Internet.
More work needs to be done to make the Automotive Network Exchange a reality, Boyd said, including further developing the business case for the network. A small pilot program with several suppliers and automakers will test the system in 1996.
``This is not going to happen overnight,'' Boyd said, ``and it's not going to be completely painless.''