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RED SPORTS CAR, PLEASE - 3-DAY CUSTOM ORDER LIKELY

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Modern manufacturing systems may someday let you personally customize a new car "right down to the fuzzy dice" and drive it in three days, says General Motors Corp.'s research chief.

The scenario laid out by Ken Baker, vice president of research and development at the automaker, still is years away.But Baker's detailed predictions, given at a automotive management conference here, reflect the type of ideas that automotobile designers and planners are discussing as they brainstorm how to entice future buyers.

Customization of cars is now a cumbersome, expensive, time-laden and aggravating process that can take weeks or months. But as Baker described it, ordering a car to your own specifications in the future will almost be like making your own ice cream sundae.

As Baker described it:

- A customer sits at a dealer's "virtual ordering station," selects a vehicle, then specifies preferences for color, trim, instrument panel layout, handling characteristics, sound system - even upholstery fabric woven to a personal design.

- A message is sent to a plant that schedules assembly of the vehicle. Orders go to a supplier network for immediate delivery of the parts.

- By the end of the next day, the finished car is en route to the dealer, who delivers it to the buyer on Day Three.

"I don't think it's `Star Wars,' I think this is stuff that someday could be real," Baker said at a University of Michigan management conference. "We're close to being able to give you customized interiors today."

A computer-driven knitting process developed by GM's Inland Fisher Guide division can reproduce a photograph or artwork throughout a car interior, Baker said. It was used to create the interior of the Chevrolet Camaro used as the pace car at the 1993 Indianapolis 500.

Computer-controlled processes are key to developing the ability to customize vehicles for individual customers.

"Our long-term goal is to be able to produce an economic lot size of one, using reprogrammable, general-purpose tooling in a plant that is much smaller than today's assembly facility," Baker said.

The concept of personally customized cars is a departure from GM's recent focus on "value priced" models that are packaged with a standard set of options and marketed at a no-haggle price.

But Baker said consumers are changing and demanding products more tailored to their needs.