GM and Systems Engineering-Jack Fisher

In 1985 General Motors purchased the Hughes Aircraft Company from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for $5.2 billion. GM created a new company, GM Hughes Electronics, by merging Hughes with Delco. This company went into operation on December 31, 1985 with its own GM class H stock listed on the New York Stock exchange. GM had high expectations that Hughes technical know how would help them build the “car of the future.” This included application of the discipline of systems engineering to the development of automobiles.

Through the efforts of Hughes executive, Mal Currie, Hughes engineers developed a systems engineering educational program for GM executives. The program was first presented to the GM board of directors on November 24, 1986. This development of this program was managed by Dick Cheng with the assistance of Jack Fisher. The agenda as presented was:

  1. Introduction-Mal Currie
  2. Agenda-Howard Wilson (RSG)
  3. Systems Engineering and the Aerospace Program-Mal Meredith
  4. The Role of Systems Engineering-Jack Fisher
  5. Building a Systems Engineering Capability-Steve Iglehart (RSG)
  6. System Engineering the Antilock Brake System-Dick Cheng
  7. Concluding Remarks-Mal Currie

The presentation was made in the boardroom of the GM building in downtown Detroit. Roger Smith, CEO at the time, was not there. I remember being told that the cushions on the chairs around the board table were of varying thicknesses so that all the board members would appear to be of the same height.

The preparation of the material took a great deal of effort by all involved. I remember specifically dry runs for Mal Currie and Don Atwood and many meetings with the preparation team. The presentation was made on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. The team flew back to Detroit on the company jet leaving from Van Nuys on Sunday afternoon and returning the next day. The presentation was to take about 3 hours plus additional time for discussion and questions. I can’t remember whether the presentation was made in the morning or afternoon—I assume it was in the morning.

We traveled back to Detroit several more times to give the same presentation to lower level GM executives. Also on April 24, 1987 we gave a discussion of “Aerospace Design Reviews” to the Saginaw Division of GM. The Saginaw Division located in Saginaw, Michigan produced automobile steering components as well as front and rear wheel drive axles. Presenters were Jack Fisher, Lenny Mell, and Bob Drean.

We also traveled to Germany in May, 1988 to give a full-day systems engineering pitch to GM’s Opel division. Travelers to Germany were Dick Cheng, Jack Fisher, John Velman, Art Gardiner, Bernie Bienstock, and Chuck Edelsohn. Mal Currie was shown on the agenda that I have but I don’t remember him being there. We flew into Frankfurt and picked up an Opel Senator, the top-of-the-line Opel car, lent to us for our stay in Germany and drove to our hotel in Wiesbaden.  The Opel factory is in Russelsheim across the Rhine River from Wiesbaden.  We were given a tour of the factory during our stay.

I never heard whether GM adopted any of our approaches to systems engineering. However, I recently discovered a page in the GM Heritage Center entitled *1986-1996, GM Systems Engineering—Working to Achieve a Common Cross-Functional Development Process.” This source states that in 1986 a GM Systems Engineering Center was established and working in collaboration with Hughes a systems engineering based vehicle engineering process was developed. The process looks as if it were based upon the material that we shared with GM. The impact of this process on the design and development of GM automobiles is not known.

I would like to see Mal Currie’s recollections of our efforts and the impact on GM engineering. If anyone can get in touch with Mal it would be great to add his comments to this post.

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About Jack Fisher

Jack was a systems engineer at Hughes from 1961 to 1992. He contributed to various programs including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus, Galileo, Intelsat VI and innumerable proposals. He was the manager of of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Lab until his retirement. Upon retirement Jack taught systems engineering at a number of national and international venues.