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US:Ford hopes to improve platform sharing and model differentiation

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Ford hopes to improve platform sharing and model differentiation


These vehicles use elements of C1 architecture.

Ford Focus (Europe)
Ford Focus C-Max (Europe)
Ford Focus Coupe-Cabriolet (Europe)
Volvo S40
Volvo V50
Volvo C30
Volvo C70
Mazda CX-7

DETROIT -- For a glimpse of what may happen to Ford Motor Co.'s U.S. vehicle lineup, look at the C1 platform that Derrick Kuzak developed for the European Ford Focus.

That versatile small-vehicle architecture has spawned several vehicles, ranging from low-priced hatchbacks to upmarket convertibles. Ford Motor used it for the Ford, Volvo and Mazda brands around the world. The program trimmed the automaker's initial engineering costs by 30 percent, and the savings continue to grow.

That type of efficiency -- and that level of vehicle differentiation -- is what Ford desperately needs in its bread-and-butter home market. Kuzak, a Detroit-born engineer who led European product development for three years, aims to repeat his C1 accomplishments here.

Ford has to become more adept at platform-sharing, he says.

"If you look at C1, it's almost a microcosm of what we're trying to do in the enterprise as a whole," says Kuzak, who has just finished his first year as Ford's North American product chief. "Having a very strong and capable platform -- and on top of that you put very unique products that are unique not just in how they look but are very consistent with the individual brand DNA."

The soft-spoken Kuzak has a big role in putting Ford's money-losing North American business on track. But transforming the U.S. product portfolio will take time and money in an environment where time is short and money is tight. The first vehicles fully developed under Kuzak won't reach showrooms until 2008.

Turning point

Ford continues to draw criticism for bland design and a snaillike pace in entering new vehicle segments. Making over a lackluster vehicle lineup, which lost 8 points of market share from 1995 to the end of 2005, is Kuzak's most crucial task.

But Ford has struggled with differentiating its shared-platform U.S. vehicles by brand. Even the Fusion program has been criticized for including a near-identical Mercury Milan and a lightly reworked Lincoln Zephyr, now called the MKZ.

Those vehicles are selling well, but even Ford executives say that styling of such platform mates must diverge more sharply in the future.

Jim Hall, vice president of the consulting company AutoPacific in Southfield, Mich., says Ford has stumbled in past efforts at platform sharing by failing to customize the vehicles for their intended markets.

Even the C1 program posed problems when adapted for other brands such as Mazda, he says.

"They learned a lot about what not to do with that program," Hall says. "But in spite of the fact that it had hiccups and fits and spurts, it worked."

Ford is in the middle of the pack right now, but it has the potential to become as good as industry leader Toyota, Hall says. That means a lot of work ahead to improve Ford's standing in the car market and to develop relevant products for Lincoln and Mercury.

That work will happen, Kuzak says: "We will be absolutely and fully competitive in every market where we have a product. No more excuses."

Following Phil

Kuzak's first year as Ford's group vice president of product development for the Americas has been fraught with challenges, management turnover and ever-expanding restructuring efforts.

One earlier upheaval gave Kuzak the chance to lead product development.

The sudden departure last October of former product chief -- and one-time company star -- Phil Martens vaulted Kuzak into the top product job just three months after returning to the United States from his six-year stint in Europe.

The 55-year-old engineer, who raced go-karts in Detroit as a boy, has long ties to the industry. His aunts, uncles and grandfather worked in the plants. A couple of uncles were high-ranking UAW officials.

Kuzak doesn't sell himself as the ultimate car guy. He joined Ford in 1978 after a brief flirtation with the aerospace industry. But he also says he loves cars and trucks.

"When you think about an engineer or businessperson and think about the product that has the most impact on peoples' lives, there's nothing like a car or truck," Kuzak says.

Colleagues describe him as focused and reserved -- almost too quiet, some say.

He doesn't seek the spotlight and isn't a front-and-center football coach-type leader pumping his fists and rallying the troops.

Some insiders question whether his style is enough to inspire the passion needed to turn around Ford's product lineup. But others say he wins over his engineers with a quiet confidence and a problem-solving approach.

In a departure from what often happens when a new boss arrives, Kuzak hasn't significantly shaken up the product development team or its direction.

He acknowledges he is carrying out many of the initiatives developed under Martens' watch.

One of those initiatives is Ford's Global Product Development System, an effort to commonize global product creation in a system modeled after Mazda. Its goal is a sharp reduction in development time and product costs.

The system is continuing under Kuzak, one insider says, and is evolving into GPDS 2.0.

More top hats

With the C1 program as a guideline, company executives lay out a vision of smartly sharing platforms, wrapping what they call top hats -- unique sheet-metal shells -- around common underpinnings. It's not a new idea, and other automakers are doing it.

Across Ford's global operations, the C1 program is its best example.

C1 spawned the European Focus, including spinoff models such as a convertible. It also underpins the Mazda3 and the Volvo S40 and V50. Although the vehicles have plenty of guts in common, visual cues are largely unique.

Initially, C1 delivered savings of about 30 percent in engineering investment and 5 to 10 percent in variable costs, Kuzak says. As more vehicles join the program and volume has soared, the savings have increased, he says.

But even as Ford of Europe switched its Focus to the C1 in 2004, the North American unit stuck with the old platform. Kuzak plans to change that, but it won't happen fast. The North American Focus won't jump to the same platform as its European counterpart until around 2010.

Harmony with design

Design matters to Kuzak. He isn't afraid to change course on design or to choose a higher-cost element if it will add significant value in the consumer's eye.

Pat Schiavone, Ford's truck design director, says Kuzak surprised him in Schiavone's first meeting with the new boss.

When design expressed doubt about a new vehicle program using a lot of carryover body panels, Kuzak told the designers to come up with a new concept.

They did, and it was approved, Schiavone says. That kind of midstream change wouldn't have been allowed before, he says.

Peter Horbury, Ford's North American design director, says of Kuzak's ascension: "The planets have lined up. We now have no reason why we can't achieve the right balance."

Kuzak stresses styling. In Europe, he established what he called the 100-meter test. Vehicles had to be recognizable as a Ford brand from that distance.

He is replicating that approach in North America, but the test is different here.

"I want people to be able to get in a Ford, a Lincoln or a Mercury blindfolded and by the touch of the materials and the sound of the engine know what brand of vehicle they are in," Kuzak says.

It's a lofty goal. Kuzak will need Ford's design, engineering and purchasing departments working together to achieve it.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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