Tuesday, February 17, 2009

FORD = Fix Or Repair Daily

As a school kid growing up in the South, this is the taunt I heard echoed on the playground if friends found out you owned a Ford. Fords were reserved for farming families, and generally represented by ancient rusting hulks that could only be trusted to croak on the day that you needed them most. As an adult, I can't say my impression of Ford products has improved dramatically, but I do find the recent article in AutoWeek profiling the new Ford Taurus curious.

The article is a bit of a PR piece, obviously, but it also reveals some surprising facts about Ford's development process. I have a lot of respect for Alan Mulally, the ex-Boeing exec now running the show at Ford. He's up against it. American automakers are so hampered by tradition, long-term contracts, and union obligations that even if they know what needs to be done, it may take a decade to get there. So it was nice to read that:
"The computer let us take a year out of the normal development of this car. Taurus was created in nearly 24 months from start to finish...Many months of effort and many thousands of man-hours have been taken out of the process, and that translates to tens of millions of dollars in savings" - Peter Horbury, Ford design VP/NA
That's great. Just one question - what took Ford so long to get computers? Even the average consumer wouldn't be wowed by "combined...design and engineering staff" and "check[ing] the trueness of a surface with the click of a mouse." Mainstream advertising has been selling this concept to every consumer demographic for well over a decade. The mere admission that digital development is new and exciting at Ford is dangerous PR territory. It's so far from a new idea that it's almost embarrassing to admit they are this late to the game.

Nevertheless, Ford now has a new Taurus with a clean, sporty look. The bar-of-soap aesthetic has been tightened up with some crisp lines at the corners and speed creases running down the flanks. Those are good choices. Even older consumers don't want to look like they're driving an old-people-car these days. But the fact that it took 24 months to achieve despite the use of the existing Volvo-derived D3 platform is ominous. By their own admission, this new car is a "top hat" design that includes only body and interior. This timing is still much too slow to keep up wth market trends regardless of digital design integration.

Competitors like KIA spit out a new design every few months by relying on a bank of existing components that can be mixed and matched to create new models with little ground-up development. Conversely, American car producers tend to approach each car as a work of art birthed from years of dedicated development. This mindset was relevant for much of the 20th century because cars were valued as precious objects on-par with the value of homes. Now cars are commodity items - they have much more in common with toothbrushes than homes these days. The American automakers must take advantage of the same streamlined development processes that get a new toothbrush on the shelf every 3 months if they are to survive.

They must go beyond the use of digital tools and apply true ground-up modularity, in-line customization techniques, and smart materials to offer consumers better choices in less time. Changing a production line should take hours, not weeks. Consumers aren't just looking for the flavor-of-the-month anymore - they're quickly getting used to the flavor of the minute. Luckily, with American cars, they'll probably settle for a few more flavors a year.

The article isn't online in it's entirety, but a summary is here

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