Wall Street Journal Special Technology Section Pages R14 and R17 November 18, 1996
By OSCAR SURIS
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Guiseppe Delena, a 43-year-old vehicle-design chief working at a Ford Motor Co. studio in Turin, Italy, is about to do in seconds what used to take him hours -- and sometimes days -- to do. He is going to share an idea with his staff in the U.S.
"Do you see this part here?" asks a small, grainy image of the bearded Mr. Delena flickering on a computer monitor here. "We should probably change it. It would allow us to change the edge of this door." Mr. Delena's scribbles on a graphic of a vehicle appear as bright red marks on the computer's 21-inch screen.
"That would make all the difference, actually," says Gary Morales, a 36-year-old design manager in Dearborn who is watching Mr. Delena's trans-Atlantic brainstorm unfold. Another member of Mr. Delena's staff offers his thoughts by touching Mr. Morales's monitor with a stylus, his suggestions showing up on the screen as lime-green streaks.
This impromptu, 100%-interactive staff meeting between Ford designers in Europe and the U.S. would never have happened without the help of two $250,000-plus workstation computers -- one in Italy, another here.
The computers are all part of Ford's drive to bridge geographical gulfs with tools more powerful than electronic mail. Ford is assembling a collection of computing networks through which it hopes to conduct most of its international product-development efforts without the help of travel agents. The goal is to cut vehicle-development time and costs.
There is a broader purpose. Having cut more than 3,000 workers from its product-development ranks, and looking to trim 6,000 more jobs by the end of next year, the No. 2 auto maker is counting on these networks to help it accomplish more with fewer workers.
No More Planes
"We need to get our people off of airplanes -- it's as simple as that," says Paul Blumberg, director of product-development systems for Ford's U.S.-based automotive operations. "If we are going to be global, we are going to need this."
"This," as Mr. Blumberg puts it, is a multibillion-dollar corporate infrastructure that includes hundreds of high-powered computers, including the two Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations used by Mr. Delena and his staff. More are on the car maker's shopping list.
Additionally, Ford's computing setup includes a companywide intranet, or private network that lets the company distribute information internally; a reserve of supercomputers that rivals some of the nation's most influential research labs; dozens of optical-fiber networks; and software that should allow Ford employees to conduct the kind of virtual engineering and design that is needed to shave months from the typical vehicle-development cycle.
Ford's rivals at General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. have also been investing heavily in this kind of equipment. But none of the Big Three has devoted so much attention to the question of achieving international synergies as Ford, where the electron-powered exchanges of information across continents and oceans have been made a top priority.
Structurally, the car maker moved in this direction two years ago when it began its "Ford 2000" reorganization, a cost-focused effort that imposed a global mind-set on the company's product-development activities. No longer would Ford engineers in Europe or anywhere else have a parochial mandate; they would be expected to work with their peers in the U.S. and elsewhere to develop products that could be sold anywhere. Before the restructuring, the international units were mainly concerned with doing business in their respective countries.
A precursor of the new philosophy was Ford's 1993 Mondeo sedan. The result of a much-maligned $6 billion effort, the European-made car nonetheless became the basis a year later for Ford's Contour and Mercury Mystique sedans in the U.S., and should spawn more offshoots for sale outside Europe by the end of the decade.
To pull off more Mondeos, Ford is fostering more of the international communication that is allowing designers like Mr. Delena to expedite and refine product-development decisions on computer screens before they are realized in clay, fiberglass or steel.
The time savings are a major plus. Ford designers can already transmit sophisticated, three-dimensional computer images of vehicle prototypes to the auto maker's studios in Turin, where computers read their designs with exacting precision. Top Ford executives on both continents, after studying these computer-animated previews, give the go-ahead to devise clay models, or full-size versions. The designers' work, now translated into numerical data, is then fed into a machine that etches the computer sketches into clay. Because engineers want to see what a car actually looks like before work begins on an assembly line, clay models remain an essential stage in vehicle development.
No More Redundancy
Ford also hopes powerful information channels will eliminate redundancy within its product-development culture. Because of the sharing of information, a steering wheel designed by the company's engineers in Dunton, England, won't have to be designed again in Dearborn. A fix concocted in the U.S. for a defective brake part would be accessible to any Ford engineer with a laptop, a phone line and a password. Already, Ford has purchased more than 5,000 copies of Netscape Communications Corp.'s Web-browser software so its employees can prowl around the company's intranet.
"We haven't done too well with maintaining our corporate memory," says Mr. Blumberg. Whether Ford employees work in Merkenich, Germany, or Hiroshima, Japan (home of Ford's Japanese partner, Mazda Motor Corp.), they can access intranet sites that detail blueprints of rival vehicles, engineering methods for problems such as door closures, corporate-approved design styles and specs for hundreds of thousands of parts.
>Given the millions of dollars that go into the making of any vehicle, the potential productivity gains from this new equipment are considerable.
Emil Sims, a 25-year-old suspension engineer, is developing an all-new light truck from his desktop in Dearborn, the center of Ford's light-truck efforts. But because his vehicle is also a front-wheel-drive model, Mr. Sims often uses his workstation to work with colleagues in Europe, the home of Ford's vehicle-development center for front-wheel-drive small cars.
"I've been designing with European parts, and I've only been on one trip to Europe," Mr. Sims says.
From his desktop, Mr. Sims can confer with his German colleagues about topics as arcane as the spatial relationships between suspension and brake parts. They can tinker with designs and see their results instantaneously in full-color, animated form. A separate piece of software takes linear drawings of Mr. Sims's work and converts them to three-dimensional form, allowing him to see what a suspension system bouncing and springing on the screen looks like. The vehicle is even rolling over Ford's official depiction of a typical U.S. pothole.
"Here's the name of the person who actually calculated it," says Mr. Sims as he looks up the specs of Ford's U.S. pothole on one of the auto maker's many intranet sites.
Used in designing these linear drawings are some of the world's most powerful computers -- air- and water-cooled machines by Cray Research Inc. that can compute the calculations Ford needs to conduct on-screen vehicle crashes, wind-tunnel simulations, durability testing and fuel-economy forecasting.
Cheaper computer power has helped reduce the cost of these expensive simulations. Ford executives estimate that in 1984, a crash simulation cost $60,000 to perform on a Cray supercomputer. Today, the cost of a Cray-calculated crash test is about $1,000. Ford estimates crash-simulation costs will drop to $10 by 2001 as the company doubles its computer power each year.
Still, the Ford Taurus sedans that populate America's highways today aren't the direct result of such wizardry. Despite a penchant for high-tech spending at Ford that dates back several years, the company, typical of an industry that is slow to change, is just now starting to use its best hardware and software in vehicle programs. In fact, this year, only three vehicles in development at Ford were making full use of the auto maker's computer-aided engineering, design and manufacturing capabilities. All vehicle-development programs are expected to do so starting next year.
That means the American public won't see the first fruits of Ford's trans-Atlantic, high-tech efforts until the year 2000. That is when Ford's next Escort small car should be hitting the road, a vehicle currently being developed at the auto maker's small-car product-development center in Europe.
--Mr. Suris is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Detroit bureau.Copyright © 1996 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.