King of the off-road

DN Staff

March 3, 1997

16 Min Read
King of the off-road

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 less noisy.

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.

  • The new Expedition recently was named the 1997 North American Truck of the Year by 47 automotive journalists, and has received rave reviews in industry publications.

  • The Explorer has been the top selling sport utility for the last six years. The Ranger has been the best-selling compact pickup for the last ten years. Both have received top rankings in leading consumer magazines.

  • 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 be dedicated."

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 objectives."

"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."

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 problems."

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," Dabrowski says.

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," Dabrowski says.

Much of the testing is done by computer. Ford last year standardized on I-DEAS(R) software from SDRC, Milford, OH, so they could tie together CAD and CAE efforts.

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.

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 says.

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," he says.

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 finished product."

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 Puttre, 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 production.

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.

  • Multi-access servo hydraulic shaker table test that simulates six degrees of freedom determined from remote parameter control road load data acquisition.

  • Variable duct temperature input, where engineers introduce 40F conditioned air at 120F ambient temperature, and 100F heated air at minus 40F ambient temperature.

  • 230F temperature at top of the exterior of panel.

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 materials.

Suppliers join the engineering team at the completion of the tests to check components and plan needed engineering changes.

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