The Showroom as Assembly Line

Article excerpt

New technology is changing the way automobiles are designed, developed, and customized

In the past, automobile buyers had to choose between the ride of, say, a stretch limousine and the fuel efficiency or maneuverability of a small-sized car. No longer. The emerging premise of recent developments in flexible hardware, coupled with programmable electronics or software, is to allow buyers to customize their cars with the exact mix of "ride" and "feel" characteristics that they want -- not those that automobile companies bundle into a limited number of available model types. Such a buyer-driven approach to customization may, oddly enough, make Alfred Sloan's mass-production model valid again. But this time, instead of the final assembly taking place in the factory, it will take place in the showroom or right in the driver's seat.

OVER THE PAST 20 years, the design and development of automobiles has changed from a game of scale to one of skill. It used to be enough to out-bet (or out-build) your opponent. Not any more. Today, as Japan's competitive success has shown, a company needs both physical scale and organizational skills -- including superior customer research, creative design capability, advanced process engineering, and aggressive program management. But even these are not enough. It must also be able to integrate these resources to develop and produce a near-constant stream of new and newly-updated, high-quality vehicles.

Just as Western automakers struggle to understand and acquire these critical skills, however, evidence is mounting that today's world-class product-development strategy -- that is, the one followed by the Japanese OEMs -- is rapidly approaching its structural limits. Look at the evidence: between 1982 and 1990, Japanese producers increased the number of separate car models they made from 47 to 84, with their engineering investment shooting from about 24 million man-hours to roughly 39 million man-hours. Extrapolating this rate of growth out to 2000, the Japanese will produce over 221 seperate models, with a total engineering investment of 103 million man-hours. Even the Japanese agree that, despite quantum leap improvements in product development and manufacturing efficiency and effectiveness, such a level of new product development is impossible to sustain.

Inevitably, the design, development, and manufacturing of automobiles will change dramatically in the years to come -- a shift that could, in fact, give Western companies significant advantages. Moreover, it appears likely that the car industry will be one among many industries, from consumer electronics to appliances, that are changing the way their products are developed and produced.

A new product battlefield

Historically, automobiles have been distinguished from one another by fixed mechanical "hardware" -- the combination of bodywork, chassis, powertrain, and trim that makes up the personality of a modern passenger car. The vehicle so assembled is basically immutable; the few things that are adjustable -- the front seats, the steering wheel, the rearview mirrors -- are designed solely to accommodate differences in customers' physical characteristics, such as height and build. The notion that customers might derive significant satisfaction from being able to adjust the subjective, "soft" elements of vehicle ownership -- steering response and suspension feel, for example -- has, to date, been mostly discounted or simply ignored.

Custom-tailoring

It no longer can be. Within the next decade or two, automakers will begin to be able to custom-tailor the soft aspects of cars through a combination of flexible mechanical hardware and programmable electronics (or "software") including both integrated circuits and programming codes. Today, it is possible electronically to adjust transmission shift points, engine torque and horsepower bands, suspension damping and travel, ride height, engine exhaust sound, brake action, steering effort, drive-wheel traction, instrumentation configuration, and even individual interior heating and cooling zones. …