The Economist recently ran an excellent survey of the car industry, including an article related to the product development process in automobile manufacture. This excerpt from said article indicates a ‘design patterns‘-like approach within design and manufacture, laying out the opportunities (consistency leading to easier production) and pitfalls (consistency leading to lack of differentiation) implicit in such an approach. Interesting.
“Given the huge range of models that car companies must offer now, they have found they need factories that are completely flexible, able to switch from making one model to another to meet fluctuating demand … Even in its heartland, the River Rouge factory beside Ford’s head office in the Dearborn suburb of Detroit, Ford is replacing an old plant with a new, more versatile one. This will make SUVs and other light-truck vehicles, working with three different vehicle platforms (the basic floor and underpinnings of a car) to produce a mix of nine different models.”
“For some years now, manufacturers have used common platforms to serve as the basis for a whole range of models, aiming to widen their range without wholesale redesigning, engineering and tooling-up. Models that share the same basic architecture can be welded and assembled on the same lines by the same robots. Platform-sharing was carried furthest by Volkswagen under its former chief executive, Ferdinand Piëch. But his successor, Mr Pischetsrieder, quickly concluded that the process had gone too far.”
“Thus, sales of the Czech-built Skoda (which was bought by VW in the early 1990s and had its cheap-and-nasty image burnished by its new owner) were challenging the posher German-made Golf, which used the same platform. Now VW is concentrating on what it calls ‘modules’: different models still share parts, but not to the extent that different brands end up looking the same. Ford is going the same way, says Mr Parry-Jones. “The trick is not to commonise the wrong bits in different models. You commonise parts such as batteries and alternators, not things the customer can see, like the window switches.””
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