American, European Auto Suppliers Marry Their ‘Collaboration-Ready’ Networks

Once upon a time in Detroit, automobiles were built using all U.S.-made parts, put together by an all-American crew working a U.S. assembly line.

Well, no. As the first four words of this story indicate, the idea of a completely independent American auto industry is largely a fairy tale. Even the Ford Model T at the beginning of the last century was also produced on assembly lines in Europe, South America, and Asia.

Today, of course, you can tell which auto companies are “American” only by where their headquarters are located. Where the parts come from, and where the car is assembled, could be anywhere in the world. That means a great deal of data streams around the world, including large pieces of critical information like CAD drawings. The company in charge of handling the pipeline for collaboration in this part of the world is the Automotive Network Exchange (ANX), based in Southfield, MI.

Recently, ANX announced that it has established a secure, fast connection with its counterpart across the pond, the European Network Exchange (ENX). ANX says it allows members of the separate networks to be “collaboration ready” with each other, forming new supply chain partnerships with less worry over how to connect.

But to understand why a seemingly simple thing like secure, fast communication among the various players in the auto industry is critical, it is important to look at why ANX exists in the first place.

Abdallah Shanti, ANX chief technology officer, used to be CIO for American Axle & Manufacturing, a major auto supplier. It was part of his job to establish direct communications with the Big Three, other suppliers, and original equipment manufacturers. You dealt with five  OEMs, you had to establish five dedicated communication lines. That was the only way.

Finally, in 1995, the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), a nonprofit industry association, “looked at this whole madness,” Shanti says, “and tried to figure out a better way to take advantage of all these synergies and try to reduce costs and help the suppliers and OEMs still achieve their electronic communications.” ANX was the result.

In 1999, AIAG sold the ANX network to Science Applications International Corp. Today, with more than 4,000 companies as members, ANX runs one of the largest extranets in the world.

“Our friends in Europe, they looked at that model and said this would be great,” says Shanti. So, in 2000, ENX was formed. The European network has more than 1,000 member companies in 30 countries.

The recent collaboration between ANX and ENX was relatively easy because the Europeans built their exchange based the Americans’ standard. So, for example, all the engineering for a small car could take place in Europe, and for trucks in North America, but the supply base might be on either continent. Information can now seamlessly, and securely, go back and forth.

Asia, however, is a different question. China and India, Shanti says, are becoming important players and this kind of data exchange would be important. While they’re talking with their Asian counterparts, nothing is ready yet. Japan has a similar system in name—JNX—but it is based on such different architecture that neither side is yet convinced that a partnership would enable the type of security required.

“You’re dealing with some sensitive product branding, product information, detailed engineering design and documents that you want to be extremely secure,” Shanti says.

In the meantime, Shanti reports, the ANX/ENX collaboration has been incredibly successful since it went online in June. It has even drummed up more business for Detroit OEMs and suppliers.

“A number of companies jumped on it and signed up for new programs in Europe that are being supported from North America,” Shanti says. “We had at least six different suppliers join that network before we went wide with it to collaborate on product design information with a major European OEM that is building facilities here in North America. This thing just took off like crazy.”

Trending on Xconomy