SOUTHFIELD, MICH. — The Year 2000 troops have been called to active duty by the Big Three carmakers.
At the epicenter is a five-room office — loosely known as the ``war room'' — leased by the Southfield-based association, Automotive Industry Action Group. Stacked in long rows inside cardboard boxes at the AIAG Information Center sit survey results. The surveys, sent by AIAG, evaluate an auto parts supplier's state of computer readiness before the year 2000.
On computer screens appears a new Web site that the year 2000 task force tweaks with the latest information.
And in a side room, about 15 potential year 2000 assessors take notes during a three-day training session. They learn to overcome objections from suppliers that say claims of computer glitches paralyzing an entire operating system, and hence, an entire company, are gross exaggerations.
``Our fear is that we're going to sound like Chicken Little telling suppliers that the sky is going to fall and their businesses will be ruined,'' said AIAG task force member Joseph Bione of Detroit-based Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group LLC. ``But it's well-proven that the computer bug will affect every company in some way. So we don't want a molding shop, for example, to say it's not our problem but someone's else's. That's the real problem.''
The year 2000 computer crisis is not one the automotive industry will ignore. Carmakers are trying to avoid the worst-case scenario: a mass, industrywide shutdown when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, that would make a union plant strike pale by comparison.
Instead, the carmakers—which together racked up about $12.1 billion in North American sales last year—have pooled their mighty resources to slay the wily millennium bug.
Their program through AIAG is widely considered the archetype for other industries and for carmakers worldwide.
``They are the largest and most-aggressive industry pursuing this,'' said Vice President Robert Cohen of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. ``I'd like to see more models being set by other industries, but they aren't out there. That's what sets this one so far apart.''
The campaign unofficially was launched in February with the first of three letters sent to suppliers from the purchasing vice presidents at General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. The letters asked — quite firmly — that suppliers assess their computer systems for year 2000 compliance and make necessary adjustments.
``You and your company are totally responsible for ensuring year 2000 capability and for maintaining your ability to supply our requirements without interruption,'' a recent missive stated in boldfaced letters.
That grabbed the attention of many suppliers, including plastics injection molder Lacks Enterprises Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.
``There's not really a lot of choice in what we do,'' said Greg Walker, Lacks' director of management information systems. ``It's currently the No. 1 focus of my department. The word is well out in the auto industry to everyone who supplies products.''
A reason for the joint effort: The auto supply chain consists of companies making interconnected parts. Consultant Susan Finn of Detroit-based Coopers & Lybrand LLP compared it to Christmas tree lights: If one goes out, the entire row could be dimmed.
The program's centerpiece is a self-assessment packet sent in October to 50,000 Tier 1 supplier sites globally. The AIAG program has been coordinated by consulting firms Coopers & Lybrand and Deloitte & Touche. Like the Big Three, the rivals have come together for a common cause.
``Look, we're not doing this as a good Samaritan operation or to get more business,'' Bione said. ``In fact, we've turned down [year 2000 compliance] business because we're too busy. But we have to audit many of these companies and do forecasts, and that could be messy if they aren't ready.''
Many survey results have been returned to AIAG, which will pass them to carmakers. The surveys have three goals: to help automakers assess the risk of goods and services interruptions; to increase awareness of year 2000 problems; and to introduce year 2000 terminology.
Suppliers must check off whether they will be computer-ready in such areas as business systems, manufacturing and warehouse equipment, environmental operations and research and development centers. Another survey area asks about their service providers, such as banks and utilities.
Tier 1 companies are expected to ask their suppliers the same questions. Large auto supplier United Technologies Automotive in Dearborn, Mich., currently is scanning its supplier databases for names to mail self-assessment surveys.
``It's a high-velocity industry,'' said James Lloyd, UTA's vice president for information and network resources. ``We're shipping so frequently that any disruption could cause something as drastic as a plant shutdown.''
After receiving completed surveys, AIAG will send trained assessors — consisting of industry executives and consultants — to Tier 1 companies that ask for help and to those the carmakers ask the assessors to visit.
``We already have quite a backlog of requests from GM, Ford and Chrysler asking us to visit sites,'' Finn said. ``We can't do the work ... but we can help guide them through the process.''
The AIAG year 2000 Web site, which requires a special password for use, will dispense information on renovating outdated computer systems.
In addition, vendors of hardware, software and programmable logic controllers have been asked to provide a rundown on which packages will be year 2000 compliant.
AIAG officials also are talking with European and Japanese carmakers about implementing a similar program, said Don Blair, AIAG associate director. The Europeans are ready to mail surveys to their suppliers, Finn added. Talks with Japanese officials are set for December.
Carmakers would like remedial work completed on suppliers' computer systems by the end of next year.
``The worst thing a company can do is to assume everything's OK,'' Lloyd said. ``You can't do that and get a good night's sleep before the year 2000. In fact, the auto industry would never let that company sleep.''