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1998-04-24 06:46:56


Automakers Are Facing a Disaster: Noncompliant Suppliers



General Motors has two billion lines of code to correct. It also has about 85,000 suppliers who have code to correct. The other automakers are in the same desperate situation.

The reporter dutifully reports the universal promise of all U.S. companies, namely, that all three U.S. automakers expect to be ready for testing in December of 1998.

When no major company meets this deadline, the doubts will spread, even among reporters.

Meanwhile, things are bad enough.

* * * * * * * *

Thank heavens it was a test. Only a test.

When Chrysler Corp. shut down its Sterling Heights Assembly Plant last year and turned all the plant's clocks to Dec. 31, 1999, executives were expecting to find computer glitches associated with the date change from 1999 to 2000.

But they weren't expecting quite so many glitches.

"We got lots of surprises," said Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton. "Nobody could get out of the plant. The security system absolutely shut down and wouldn't let anybody in or out. And you obviously couldn't have paid people, because the time-clock systems didn't work."

Executives at General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and thousands of parts suppliers have similar horror stories.

The Year 2000 bug -- a glitch based on computer programming that reads only the last two digits of a year, so 2000 is read as 1900 -- has the potential to cripple Big Three production and delay paychecks for hundreds of thousands of employees. . . .

While Detroit's automakers mobilize resources, no one has come up with an easy solution: Programmers must debug systems one by one. GM alone must review more than 2 billion lines of code, which operate office computers and up to 500,000 computerized, factory-floor devices that could crash Dec. 31, 1999.

But the Big Three are confident they will enter the new millennium smoothly. GM, Ford and Chrysler plan to finish debugging by the end of 1998. They'll spend 1999 fine tuning.

Their big worry concerns suppliers -- the more than 40,000 companies with 70,000 factories and offices around the world responsible for wheels, seats, robots, grommets, computer chips and millions of other parts needed for vehicles. . . .

Supplier dependency

That scares the automakers, who cannot legally swoop in and debug software that doesn't belong to them. The automakers are dependent on suppliers to bring parts to the assembly lines, but suppliers generally are independent businesses that are not under the direct control of the car companies. So a small firm cranking out plastic fasteners has the potential to slow or halt assembly lines if it can't ship after Jan. 1, 2000.

"We're pretty sure our first tier will work," Chrysler President Thomas Stallkamp said of his company's largest suppliers. "It's the second and third and fourth tier who supply not just our industry but others. As you get further down the food chain, you've got a guy making widgets for us as well as for Boeing and Maytag, and those guys are the ones we're worried about." . . .

But what happens in December 1999 if the automakers identify critical suppliers who haven't debugged their systems? No one knows for sure.

"We're looking at contingency plans and possible swat teams to go in and help out suppliers at the last minute," said George Surdu, program manager for Ford's global Year 2000 project. "At the end of the day, though, the ultimate responsibility is the supplier's." . . .

Asia lags behind

A big worry for the Big Three, who have relied increasingly on foreign suppliers in low-cost markets, is whether Asia is prepared for 2000.

Japan has been in a deep recession for five years or more, and debugging has been a relatively low priority. Throughout Southeast Asia, continuing financial crises might set up a Year 2000 catastrophe that could affect operations ranging from Big Three wire harness making in the Philippines to new assembly lines in Thailand and China.


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