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3-D tech builds GM plant
Virtual reality program simulates Lansing factory in real time, reduces costly changes
R.J. King / The Detroit News

General Motors Corp. is using virtual reality technology for the first time to cut construction costs for a factory to be built near Lansing.

The automaker and its design team are creating 3-D models of the plant on computers, using "real-time technology" to help eliminate design changes after construction begins that could drive up building costs by millions of dollars, according to GM and private contractors working on the project.

The effort is part of an $800 million project along Interstate 69 in Delta Township. The Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant is expected to open in late 2006.

The 3-D technology allows engineers and designers to walk through the plant in a virtual reality simulation setting. Engineers can place assembly equipment in various positions in the virtual plant to help determine the most efficient way to build vehicles.

"The 3-D design will allow us to significantly reduce design errors and change orders at the plant," said Paul H. Lemley, senior vice president of Alberici Constructors, a large contractor in Livonia. Alberici was hired by GM to oversee construction of the 2.4-million-square-foot assembly plant, body shop and office building.

Construction experts say it's difficult to predict the cost savings from using the new design method until the factory is operational. When DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group launched production of the Jeep Liberty three years ago at a new factory in Toledo, Ohio, the automaker said virtual design helped keep construction costs down to $54 per square foot, compared to an industry average of $70 to $80 per square foot.

Once the design work on GM's Delta Township plant is completed later this year, the automaker and its contractors will produce construction drawings from the 3-D computer model.

"In the past, we had engineers drawing construction blueprints at drafting tables," Lemley said. "It was time-consuming. If something had to be changed in midconstruction, it could be very costly to redesign and rebuild."

In addition to reducing design changes at the new plant, GM hopes to streamline the plant's infrastructure. Traditionally, factory roofs needed columns to support big utility lines, overhead cranes and structural components.

"You go into an older plant and you'll see these huge concrete support columns," said William J. MacAdam, president of Friendlystreet LLC, a visualization services firm in Bloomfield Hills that's providing the virtual reality equipment. "The (roof in the) new plant is essentially being designed to keep the assembly floor dry (from rain)."

Over the last six months, a team of 70 GM engineers, private architects and contractors have been designing the GM Delta plant at the offices of Ghafari Cos., an architectural and engineering services firm in Dearborn.

GM's new factory will replace an aging plant in Lansing that now makes the Oldsmobile Alero, Pontiac Grand Am and Chevrolet Classic, which is sold only to rental fleets and commercial customers.

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