Inside the War Room: The Competitor Chop Shop at General Motors

The legendary Sun Tzu once said, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not imperiled in a hundred battles.” After the quality blunders of the 1970s and 1980s, General Motors has learned to listen.

Just down the street from Buddy’s Pizza in Warren, Michigan is the General Motors Vehicle Engineering Center, a mechanical house of horrors where Toyotas and Mercedes are put to the knife. Approximately 100 technicians tear down competitors’ vehicles bolt by bolt, scanning each component into a 3D CAD database where the parts can undergo model animation or be manufactured by 3D rapid prototyping printers.

In one sense, the chop shop is nothing new. All companies compare products.  However, GM has gone the extra mile.

Before so much as a hubcap is removed, a 3D mugshot of the vehicle is scanned into a computer. This is neither a simple nor an inexpensive process. The car must be studded with self-adhesive labels, which cost $1,200 for eight rolls, and then scanned by a stereoscopic camera. Technicians use white- or blue-light image scanning for macro measurements, with each blue-light camera equipment suite sporting a price tag of $180,000.

As the deconstruction continues, technicians use red-light laser scanning technology to create a full CAD model of the car, its electrical system, its powertrain, and absolutely everything else. Even the interior seam tolerances are recorded. At the end of the process, the sample vehicle will be 100% reverse-engineered. Engineers can use the treasure trove of information to decipher how Hyundai snagged an extra half inch of  head room or how Mercedes wires its windows.

But General Motors goes beyond that of destroying its competitors’ vehicles. Every so often, it performs an autopsy on one of its own, old or new, to check quality. Since auto manufacturers commonly share suppliers for basic parts – bolts, sheets, etc. – then GM’s discovery of a substandard electrical component could help Ford as well. Call it Good Samaritan behavior.

But at the end of the day, General Motors is working for General Motors. Immense punch presses, water-jet rigs and CNC machines hide in the back, ammunition for extensive prototyping.

Because this – this is war.

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