Bathed in a shower of accolades from customers, consumer advocates, dealers,
and virtually every car magazine, Ford engineers thought their sport utes and
light trucks had cleaned up the most-sought-after automotive-industry laurels.
Then came the letter about the Missouri hogs.
Great vehicle, that F-series pickup, wrote Springfield contractor and farmer
Vernon Gann. Hauling everything from tools and sheetrock to calves and hogs, he
has driven his more than a million miles!
Okay, so he replaced the engine on his rust-freckled 1966--after 800,000
miles. But, the transmission is the original.
Gann's experience isn't one of a kind. David Kiger, a Webbville, KY, mail
carrier, drove his F-Series a million miles too, presumably hauling something
"Ford's F-150 pickup sets benchmarks for car-like handling, ride,
and refinement. The new Expedition promises to do the same."
--Car and Driver,
A million miles in a pickup? That's more than three-dozen laps around the
world--certainly something to crow about. The report surprised everyone,
including Ken Dabrowski, Ford's vice president for quality and process
leadership, whose job it is to ensure the reliability of Ford products.
"Commercial trucks generally go about 300,000 miles, and personal-use vehicles
go 150,000," he says.
But by going the extra mile in engineering, Ford is redefining quality and
reliability in the booming sport utility and light-truck category, as well as in
passenger cars. The effort has paid off handsomely:
The F-150 has been the number-one-selling vehicle of any kind in the U.S.
for the last 15 years, and the best-selling truck for the last 20 years.
In the passenger-car category, the Taurus has been a perennial sales
leader. Indeed, Design News readers said Ford makes the best-engineered
cars, and the Taurus is the best-engineered car in the U.S. in the
magazine's most recent automotive survey. For ten years, readers said the
Taurus was the car they would buy if they were in the market.
Mindset matters. With that kind of record, Ford is doing
something right, and that something begins with mindset. "We believe that
quality and value are what the customer thinks they are, not what we think they
are," says Dabrowski. "Value to them is more than just price or repair costs:
It's having a vehicle that is as comfortable as your favorite slippers or easy
chair, throughout its lifespan."
Dabrowski might be the ideal person to lead Ford's quality efforts, but he is
adamant about the importance of teams. "I'm lucky to be the orchestra leader and
not a one-man band," he says. Still, as a 32-year Ford veteran who has worked in
commercial trucks, body engineering, small-car and speciality-vehicle programs,
and electronics and emissions components, among other assignments, mechanical
engineer Dabrowski is widely regarded as one of the pillars of the company's
quality efforts. That's in part because he remains as excited about vehicles as
he was in his youth.
"I've always loved them," he says, and recalls being able to identify cars by
model while sitting on the front steps of his Detroit home with his mother when
he was five years old.
"His strength is his devotion," says Joe Sparks, who was the quality
technology officer for Dabrowski when the latter was executive director of body
engineering. "He pushes for robust engineering, and was always encouraging us to
Adds Mark Nimphie, manager of business and product planning for Ford's
commercial vehicle center: "He sets targets and gets you to perform to those
targets. He is the master of stretch--getting everyone to achieve beyond their
"He has extraordinary product instinct and vision and can discern what
customers want," says Dee Kapur, quality director for advanced vehicle
technology. He apparently combines that insight with a fair amount of corporate
courage too. Kapur recalls that Dabrowski was among few members of executive
management to push for keeping the Mustang in the mid-80s, when Ford considered
abandoning the model. "He was director of small and mid-size car programs, and
he asked me to find a way to fund design work on a new Mustang secretly until he
could get company approval," Kapur says.
One of the worst kept secrets of his career is the long hours he puts in. "I
remember one morning going into the men's wash room at Ford and finding Ken
shaving," recalls Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver and a one-time
Ford engineer. "He had worked all night at his desk, and was just freshening up
for another day."
Many Ford engineers were reluctant to embrace an all-four-door
concept for the Expedition, but, says Ken Dabrowski, that's what customers
wanted, and that's what counts.
Ford engineers follow this pyramid
of priorities to ensure quality and reliability in all vehicles.
"We knew fromexperience how good the Tahoe is, and we couldn't help
thinking Ford would be fully justified in not trying to hit one out of the
park this time, but in simply striving for parity…All such notions
vanished as we moved the two vehicles (Tahoe and Expedition) next to each
other…The Expedition has the edge."
Sleepless in Detroit. All-nighters and hard work are nothing
new to Dabrowski. A native of inner-city Detroit, he worked his way through a
private high school in a variety of jobs. To pay for his engineering education
at the University of Detroit, he worked from 10:30 p.m. to 7a.m. at a local
A&P grocery store, then made it to his classes by 8 a.m.
He still gets by on five hours of sleep a night.
Eventually, the young engineering student got a co-op job from school in
Ford's automotive assembly division, where he acted as a manufacturing process
engineer. Ford asked him to stay on and finish his degree program at night. He
did, and has been at Ford ever since, except for a six-month stint at Chrysler.
After getting his bachelor's degree, he went to work for Ford's body
engineering department as part of the Ford College Graduate Program. He rotated
through several positions before becoming, in turn, a stress analyst, design
engineer, principal engineer, and body systems manager.
That was in the early seventies, and Ford was growing fast. In one two-week
period, the company offered Dabrowski four promotions. He turned them all down.
"What's the matter with you?" his boss asked. Nothing, Dabrowski replied, "I
haven't had the chance yet to design, develop, and release complex components,
and I want that background."
Among the most complex at the time were powertrain electronics to comply with
the new Clean Air Act, and Ford assigned Dabrowski to that program. "I knew
nothing about it, but it sounded terrific, so I jumped at it," he recalls.
Passion for quality. By all accounts, quality and
reliability have been his passions throughout his career. In fact, among the
books in his office is the classic A Passion for Excellence, by Tom
Peters. "He spots quality and engineering problems fast and gets you to think
about the flaws in your own design," recalls Sparks, his former staff person
from vehicle operations. "He concentrates on the important things, not the
urgent things, and keeps asking questions to get us to think about potential
That mindset made him one of the prime movers in Ford's major push for
quality in the late 1980s, a push which continues under Dabrowski today.
"One of the realities we noted was that many of our people were not prepared
for the kind of approach to quality that we wanted to initiate," Dabrowski
recalls. So, the company formed the Ford Design Institute to teach robustness in
design and systems engineering. Patterned after similar programs at Xerox and
Motorola, the Ford Design Institute has its own staff and board of directors,
which Dabrowski chaired for four years. He also taught courses in the Institute.
Additionally, during the 1980s, Ford developed the Quality Operating System
and metrics. The quality Operating System includes reviews at specific
milestones in design and a detailed failure mode effects analysis (FMEA) on
every vehicle subsystem. "We even rate the quality of the FMEA itself,"
"Ford's attention to ergonomic detail has gone a long way towards
making (the AeroMax) the best truck ever to wear the blue oval."
--Commercial Carrier Journal
Using computer modeling and physical testing, Ford does systemic analysis and
compatibility tests of designs of components and subsystems. In this System
Design Specification Process, engineers develop key life tests in which they
simulate the environment the vehicle will experience in actual use. Using
accelerometers, they determine road load profiles and duplicate those profiles
on a shaker, where they also introduce temperature, humidity, and thermal
shocks. Each major vehicle subsystem has its own key life test.
"Some people didn't like the system when Ken first conceived it, but he
argued that this was what we are all about and that it was a way to translate
into engineering specs what customers see," says Kapur.
Test 'til it breaks. One of the many major mindsets involves
test thresholds. "We converted from bogey testing to test to failure," Dabrowski
says. "If you only test against a predetermined level of quality, you never know
whether you're right on the edge of a cliff. Testing to failure lets you know
the real useful life of a vehicle."
Useful life can be different for each user, however. To ensure the most
reliable results, Ford designs for the 90th-percentile customer rather than the
nominal or average customer. Example: Average drivers might slam the door of
their vehicle 30,000 times during its life. The 90th-percentile user would slam
it about 150,000 times. "We now design the door for the 150,000 slams,"
Much of the testing is done by computer. Ford last year standardized on
I-DEAS® software from SDRC, Milford, OH, so they could tie together CAD and CAE
But despite the sophistication of computer simulation, some physical testing
is still important to the quality effort. For example, engineers run prototypes
at idle enclosed by walls in the Arizona desert to see how they hold up under
extremely high temperatures. Engineers also test vehicles like the F-150,
Expedition, and the new Ford AeroMax, a Class 8 Ford tractor designed
exclusively for over-the-road use, by having them pull trailers in high
temperatures up the steep slopes near Nevada's Davis Dam.
The rigorous testing can turn up problems engineers wouldn't otherwise see.
Dabrowski recalls one case with the F-150 where headlamp bulbs kept burning out
during durability tests. "It happened too often to be a random occurrence," he
says, "so we looked closer and found that the problem occurred only at certain
areas of our test course." Eventually, engineers discovered that the resonant
frequency of the headlamp assembly lined up with the resonant frequency of the
bulb filament. Solution: change the frequency of the headlamp assembly.
While testing air suspension systems, they found that in certain driving
conditions the truck was taking in water at the level sensor. Because of its
orientation on the chassis, the sensor was picking up splash, so they
reconfigured the orientation.
After analyzing field complaints, engineers tested the wiper system on the
F-150 and found that the angle of attack of the wiper against the windshield was
critical for preventing chatter. They created a performance standard that
provides an acceptable band of angle of attack to eliminate the problem.
"I've been more impressed with the Expedition than any other vehicle
in the last couple of years. It's totally refined and rides like a car. I
put Ford ahead in pickups andsport utilities."
editor of Tire Kicking Today
There is one other area of defect prevention and detection that Dabrowski
insists on, and it's rather basic. "I want every senior member of the product
team to drive the vehicle for several hours before it's released to
manufacturing to see if they like it," he says. "You have to put yourself into
the position of the user, and that's a very effective way to do it."
He isn't afraid to delay a program if necessary to make sure the vehicle
meets his and his team's expectations. With the Aeromax, he delayed production
for four months because he just wasn't satisfied with it.
The good as well as the bad and ugly. Of course, quality and
reliability are more than just a matter of defect prevention. "You have to
concentrate on what is going right, as well as what can go wrong," Dabrowski
Case in point: the third door on the F-150. "Customers love it for its ease
of entry, and they love the roominess of the cab, which is a full five inches
deeper," he says.
On the Expedition, the four-door design is what he expects customers will
like, as well as the car-like handling. "Going to an all-four-door design was a
tough decision because we had 30 years of tradition with the two-door Bronco,"
Dabrowski says. Two-door Explorer sales were less than four-door sales, and
interviews with customers indicated they preferred the four-door version. "So we
knew customers wanted the larger size, and what they want is what's important,"
Giving the customer what he wants is too big a job for one engineer or even
one engineering team. Everyone has to be involved and feel they have the full
company's backing. "Ken is a strong supporter of our quarterbacking system and
gives his teams the support they need," says Ford business and product-planning
manager Nimphie. The quarterbacking system breaks vehicles into major systems
and assigns executive "quarterbacks" who are free to use any company resource
they need to get past barriers to robust design. "He gives you all the support
you want, but you better have a good strategy," says Sparks.
Dabrowski is renowned for his mastery of the details of engineering. "He
worships the details, and can cut through the chaff to the right issues," says
Nimphie. "And, he never for-gets anything."
While he says he tries to leave details up to engineering team members,
Dabrowski says he is interested in results, "so my attention to detail is on the
Nevertheless, he misses hands-on engineering. "I think every engineering
manager does," he asserts. And the respect he feels for his fellow engineers is
mutual. When he returned to the body engineering group in 1991 as executive
director, several of the engineers who worked with him on drafting boards there
20 years earlier greeted him in the lobby with a warm welcome.
They were recognizing his passion for product. "Designing a vehicle that
pleases and satisfies people is very gratifying," he says. "It's the kind of
work I always want to do."
Down and dirty, with panache
Quality is important not only in engineering, but also in the way engineering
and styling work together in a product. That's particularly true in the modern
pickup truck, which has become a unique fusion of work and show horse. A
rancher's truck in Texas may get washed once in its life, at the dealership;
while the same model in California might be making milk runs--literally--to the
grocery store three times a week.
No truck better exemplifies this mixed breeding, perhaps, than the Ford
F-150, the hottest-selling vehicle of any kind for the last decade and a half.
"We're into making trucks by the hundreds of thousands," says Andrew Jacobson,
chief designer for the 1997 F-150. "Yet, we still want the customer to feel he
or she is getting a custom-looking vehicle."
Ford's answer is to make sure style-conscious designers and mechanical
engineering work in concert. Ford encourages interaction by co-locating
developers of all stripes: body engineers, manufacturers, power-train people all
have easy access to each other. "Sometimes it comes down to visual aesthetics vs
function," Jacobson says. "This can lead to some pretty lively discussions."
More often, Jacobson continues, design is the craft of celebrating what the
engineer has in mind. His team developed the distinctive "flairside" cab and
one-piece body styling available in the latest F-150s. The sloping hood rejects
the typical "flattop" look. "We're sending an overt design message," Jacobson
says. "The F-150 gives the perception of strength, but you don't need droppings
under your shoes to drive it."
--Michael Puttré, Associate Editor
Shake, rattle, and roll
Before it ever hit the showroom, the new Expedition had already logged 5
million miles of testing.
In the lab, Ford did key-life tests on the instrument panel that simultated
150,000 miles. The goal: to find potential trouble spots and fix them before
Each test is customized for the specific component or system tested, and each
shows the reliability of individual parts and how they react together. Here are
the elements of the key-life test for instrument panels and console systems in
trucks and passenger vehicles. In 13 days, the lab test accomplishes what used
to take Ford several months to achieve in road testing.
Electrodynamic shaker-table test that puts the components through vertical
shaking to find squeaks and rattles. Engineers perform the test at 0 miles and
150,000 miles to determine system degradation.
Concurrently, testing arms open and close glove boxes, ash trays, console
doors, and cup holders. Throughout the tests, engineers adjust ambient
temperature between minus 40F and 180F to check the effect on components and
Suppliers join the engineering team at the completion of the tests to check
components and plan needed engineering changes.