Toyota's push to overtake GM as the world's largest car manufacturer underscores a significant change in vehicle design. The company is shortening its time to market, gaining sales by completing innovative designs in less time than its competitors take.
The development of the 2000 Avalon took 29.5 months, which was fairly short for that time, Jeffrey Makarewicz, general manager at Toyota Technical Center USA recalls. That's slow compared to the more complex task of developing the first popular hybrid vehicle. "The Prius went from concept to production in 24 months," Makarewicz says.
More conventional projects can now be completed in less than two years. A redesign of the Avalon that came out in 2005 took only 18 months, he adds.
Vehicle manufacturers face a number of challenges as Detroit struggles to stem its sales slide while global suppliers press to gain a greater share of a shifting market. At the same time, engineers must come up with techniques that balance the desires of luxury car buyers and the need to devise inexpensive vehicles for the huge growth expectations for China and India.
Though the highest margins are likely to come from luxury cars that have the latest technical advances, the largest volumes will come in vehicles for regions where most people don't presently have their own cars. "Emerging markets will be 89 percent of growth through 2010," said Jose Maria Alapont, chairman of Federal Mogul Corp. of Southfield, MI.
Getting innovative products to market quickly will be one of the big challenges for carmakers over the next several years. To meet these varied demands, executives are doing their own balancing act, putting more pressure on engineers, while giving them more freedom. "You have to give authority to each engineer," Hirohide Ikeno, president of Honda R&D America said.
The goal is to create an environment where engineers can come up with something new that will excite consumers or enable manufacturers to save money or shorten development Ľtime. In a word, they want engineers to focus on innovation. "The companies thatmaster new approaches that foster innovation will be the ones that capture profits," said Don Manvel, CEO of AVL North America of Plymouth, MI.
There are many different techniques that help manufacturers get innovative designs to market quickly. One is to make ever greater use of the Internet. The availability of broadband links and collaborative tools are making it possible for global development teams to work together. Outsourcing and the need for international input are also forcing teams to work closely with outsiders and remote internal groups as complex vehicle designs move from start to finish.
Communication between teams is key, regardless of their geographic location. "To collaborate outside the company, you need to have good collaboration inside the company," said Craig Bellevender of Continental Teves of Auburn Hills, MI.
Much of the focus on collaboration aims to tighten links between Tier 1 and 2 suppliers who make subsystems and key components. But as companies scour the globe for innovative ideas, they're looking at all types of research. "It's very important to open up. We work with hundreds of national labs and universities," said Toyota's Makarewicz.
There are also a number of concepts designed to promote creativity within a company.
A technique for rejuvenating creativity is to reshuffle teams when projects are finished. "One important thing is to move people around," said Frank Niederlaender, vice president of strategy at BMW.
As design cycles get shorter, it's also important to make sure timetables are being met. Once new concepts have been developed, managers need to establish a program for their continuing development. "You need to have a clear plan with milestones," Makarewicz said.
Yet another way to combine innovation and short timeframes is to re-use technology. Modeling is one of the tools that help companies make use of modules they have tested in the field, saving time while improving reliability. "We're designing modular systems that have components designed for re-use," said Helmut Schinagel, vice president of driver environment at BMW Group.
The auto industry is finally copying a page from electronics, making greater use of standards. Standardization has seen limited success in automotive, but that's changing fairly quickly. One of the more popular is the Automotive Open System Architecture, which provides a common interface between electronic components.
"AutoSAR will help assure that components from multiple suppliers will interact, bringing us plug and play functionality," said David Robinson, president of the Robert Bosch Corp. Electronics Division in Farmington Hills MI.
Though companies are encouraging engineers to seek new ideas, failures like the talking car of the 1980s and 42 V power supplies are reminders that the voice of the customer determines success. "You can't push innovation for innovation's sake," said Frank Niederlaender, vice president on strategy at BMW.
Many of the enhancements in vehicles involve electronic controls, and semiconductors will figure in many of those still coming. But that expansion put as many as 100 sensors and 50 microcontrollers in some vehicles, so automakers are now attempting to reign in this expansion.
Tire pressure monitors are an example. They were mandated after the Ford-Firestone rollover problems, and aren't required on all vehicles sold in the U.S. until model year 2008. Instead of adding another controller, many automakers are piggybacking them onto other systems. "We are integrating TPM systems into remote keyless entry systems," says Bob Stewart, Intellitire product director at Lear Corp. of Southfield, MI.
But reducing the amount of hardware doesn't come without a price. Programming complexity is rising. "There's a trend to limit the number of electronic control units with the hope of limiting system complexity. This reduction is forcing more functions into an ECU, which greatly increases the complexity of software in the ECU," said Jason Forcier, president of ETAS Inc. of Stuttgart, Germany.