General Motors is launching two major mid-sized sedans in 2016 – the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu which began arriving in showrooms early in the year, and the 2017 Buick LaCrosse that goes into production during the summer for a third-quarter release. With both vehicles, the automaker brought teams of engineers from the manufacturing plants that will build the cars into the design studios to voice concerns early. The hope – avoid putting cool features in the cars that turn out to be difficult or impossible to build, especially at high volumes.

Jeff Yanssens, chief engineer for the Buick LaCrosse, and Jesse Ortega, chief engineer for the Chevrolet Malibu, recently sat down with Today’s Motor Vehicles to discuss how bringing manufacturing engineers into the design process helped improve both cars.

Today’s Motor Vehicles: The Malibu is the first car to be launched on GM’s new global architecture for mid-sized cars, with the LaCrosse coming second. What’s the most important improvement to the platform’s design?

Jesse Ortega: We spent a lot of time and effort to improve the styling. This is still a fashion business, so looks matter. If you look at the slope of the vehicle, it looks a lot longer than the old model, but it’s only 2" longer.

We also had to make sure it was lighter and more fuel efficient. It’s a global model, so we’re not just dealing with U.S. fuel economy regulations, we have Europe and Asia to consider as well. Before we even imagine what this was going to look like, we were talking about weight and shape.

You have a lot of competing interests when you’re designing and engineering a vehicle. The guys working on mass will look at every part and want to take it apart to optimize each element with the lightest material possible. But when you start adding more parts that have to be reassembled, that means more labor. So, you need to get the manufacturing team involved.

Jeff Yanssens: We have to balance cost to mass. If you want to make it lighter, typically it costs more. When we start this process, we get mass targets and cost targets, and you have to be strategic. We do a lot of tradeout studies to figure out where the value is. We tend to measure in dollars per kilogram. Here’s how much it costs to go from material A to material B. You can say here’s a 3:1 payoff on mass, or here’s a 10:1 payoff, I’m going with the 10:1.

General Motors’ 2016 Chevrolet Malibu is the company’s first car to be launched on a mid-sized architecture that will be used globally.
TMV: How did you get manufacturing to play a role earlier in the vehicles’ developments?

JY: At GM, we talk about vehicle launches from left to right. The far left side is the early development of the vehicle – design work and engineering. The far right is final manufacturing and delivery of the vehicle. Our goal is to get manufacturing engineering challenges as far to the left as possible, addressing them in those early design phases before you’re dealing with a more finished product.

Manufacturing engineering represents the assembly plant. We decide who’s going to make the vehicle, and they come in and work with us. They’re responsible for all of the fixtures and adjustments to the line. They engineer the assembly process.

TMV: Simply talking to manufacturing engineers early improved the design?

JY: Not just talking. When we talk about moving manufacturing farther to the left of development, that means moving some responsibility that direction. For the LaCrosse, we took the prototype process that used to be a product engineering function and transferred that to manufacturing.

Our earliest prototypes are now built by the manufacturing team, so there are more learnings, and more influence on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. We’re seeing some really big quality gains from that. We’re almost one cycle ahead of ourselves. When we’re building prototypes, they’re more like pre-production vehicles, and pre-production vehicles are more like final builds.

JO: Bringing teams in early creates a sense of ownership of problems. The factory guys feel less like they’re putting out fires and more like they’re improving the product. I spent 16 years at Saturn, and there, I saw the power of working together. If you can get people to be part of the decision-making process – where it makes sense to get their input – it helps the design process, and the people making the vehicle understand why it was designed that way.

TMV: How has bringing manufacturing engineers into the process early improved quality?

JY: You have a lot of metrics you have to meet. Quality is the guiding principle that never wavers. If I have to use a certain manufacturing process or technique to meet quality, that’s what I have to do. So when the designers come up with ideas that look great on paper, the engineering guys can tell us about costs and secondary processes.

The Chevrolet Malibu’s rear deck lid has a sharp curve achieved by using laser brazing, a manufacturing process that GM had only used on Cadillac models.

JE: On the Malibu, the rear deck lid is laser brazed to get a sharper angle, almost like a spoiler. At GM we’ve used laser brazing on the Cadillac CTS for a long time, but we haven’t done it in these volumes before. So, we brought in some of the manufacturing people from Cadillac to walk us through the process and what we’d have to do to maintain quality.

JY: Quality is where we see the biggest benefit from involving manufacturing, but flexibility is really important, too.

The LaCrosse is going into Detroit Hamtramck. That plant is very flexible. You have the [Cadillac] CT6, the [Chevrolet] Volt, and the [Chevrolet] Impala built there. We have a bill of process we follow, a set of metrics we have to judge ourselves against to make sure all these products will be able to roll down the assembly line together.

So we have manufacturing engineers from all of those vehicles making sure we’re putting locator points for the robots in the right place on the car so it will work on the assembly line.

We’re also bringing suppliers in earlier. We’re trying to get ourselves aligned in each major supply area with three or four companies and send more of our work to them. They get into the vehicle earlier from a manufacturing and design standpoint, and we can develop footprints on where they build parts, reducing our logistics costs. It all affects costs and quality by the time you get to the final build.

TMV: What are your favorite features on the Malibu?

JO: The overall design is really clever for this car. In a high-volume segment such as this, you really have to stick with steel, so we were really strategic about where we used mild alloys and advanced high-strength steel. We optimized the material use for each function while still keeping the car affordable on the manufacturing side.

To get the design structure right, to get the higher-strength material where it needed to be for crash safety, we did a lot of electronic mapping and analysis. I think it really paid off with the overall look and feel of the vehicle.

TMV: What’s your favorite part of the LaCrosse?

JY: The new engine was designed to be the best in the industry in this segment. For a V-6, it’s the quietest engine – both noise and vibration and audible sound. It was designed for start-stop technology from day one. It’s the smoothest car I’ve ever driven for start-stop.

We put a premium rear suspension in it – a five-link system typically found only on high-end luxury cars. We brought that into the LaCrosse because it gives you a better balance for ride and handling. People talk about Buick being an older man’s car, but we’ve done a really good job with this vehicle in balancing handling with ride comfort. We’ve improved the ride, but we’ve dramatically improved handling.

General Motors Co.

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or