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Viewpoints: Building an Auto Company on 'Common'


By James E. Harbour
Chairman Emeritus
Harbour Consulting
Troy, MI    


Japanese automakers have consistently produced high-quality vehicles in their productive assembly and manufacturing plants. The main question that never seems to be answered is: "How do they consistently do that?" What is the foundation for the Japanese auto manufacturers' achievements in quality and efficiency? Are they better executives, better product and manufacturing engineers, or are there structural reasons for their long-term success?

To find answers, we must go back to the 1960s when Japanese auto executives and engineers came to the US to learn what made the Big Three automakers so dominant.

They first studied the design, product, and manufacturing-engineering functions at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Their initial focus was on body design, tool-and-die design, body-panel stamping, and body welding, because they knew that building a high-quality body was essential to assembling a quality car.

What they found was that US manufacturers relied on simple engineering basics. US automakers--particularly at the Fisher Body Division of General Motors--had commonized body architecture. Having a common body architecture meant that the purchase of tools and facilities for all unique platforms could be accomplished at the lowest possible piece cost and investment.

The Japanese found that body stamping, tool-and-die designs and construction, and body-welding systems were all commonized. Further, common body architecture afforded US automakers the flexibility necessary to produce multiple platforms in single plants, and guaranteed that the work force was always starting high on the quality learning curve.

It did not matter that the Big Three were not productive or low-cost. The Japanese concluded that their lack of efficiency arose more from contractual problems with the workforce than from basic engineering.

The Japanese also learned that common body architecture led directly to a common assembly bill of process. In every car-assembly plant, components and subassemblies were installed in the same work station, regardless of the platform or model. This approach, they concluded, offered maximum assembly-plant flexibility.

Another major observation was that the Big Three almost never introduced an "all-new" car. They would not make major power train or chassis changes in the same year a new body was scheduled for production. If an all-new car was to be brought to market, the launch was significantly lengthened, and supported by a much-enlarged team of product and manufacturing engineers.

The Japanese also noted that all plants at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors stockpiled massive quantities of work-in-process to support their output. The Japanese knew their small plants could not support huge work-in-process inventories. Their system of clustering supplier plants, and frequent, timely deliveries, would significantly reduce costs and improve product quality. The Just-In-Time system was not fully developed in the 1960s, nor had anyone heard the term "Lean."

Building on detailed studies at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, Japanese automakers defined specific, non-negotiable parameters for their design staff, product engineers, and manufacturing engineers that included commonizing:

  • Body architecture,
  • Die designs/processing,
  • Die construction facilities/processing,
  • Body-welding systems,
  • Assembly bill of process, and
  • Components/suppliers.

Their basic focus was on "common," and it was the foundation of their future success. The Japanese religiously implemented this focus, and by the 1970s were shipping huge volumes of high-quality, low-cost cars to the US market. This onslaught forced Chrysler to seek a federal bailout in 1980, while General Motors and Ford, in lieu of addressing their noncompetitive product quality and manufacturing plant inefficiency, chose to implement massive reorganizations. Product development, assembly, stamping, power train, and component plants were reorganized into new, separate groups. The results were disastrous.

Each new product or manufacturing group went its own way, creating all-new body architectures, assembly bills of process, die designs, assembly facilities and tools, power trains, and new components and suppliers.

Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors later appreciated that these reorganizations were a main cause of their decline, and set out to refocus on "common." This refocusing has taken years to implement, and is not complete. The changes have, however, proven that our product and manufacturing engineers can accomplish significant results when given a common focus. Today, product quality and plant productivity at the Big Three are stellar. Now it's time to convince the buying public that the Big Three are producing great products.

This article was first published in the September 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  

Published Date : 9/1/2005

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