On the edge
Elaine Bannon and Doyle Letson, from Ford Motor Co., Detroit, Mich., USA
on the edge
by Sarah Fister Gale photos by Rachel Holland
Looking to drive up stagnating sales, Ford Motor Co. spends half a billion dollars on a project to create its first crossover utility vehicle.
After dominating the U.S. sport utility vehicle (SUV) market in the 1990s, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., USA, took a wrong turn in tracking consumer tastes. But the auto giant was betting it could get back on the map with a massive project to develop the Edge, its first official entry in the emerging crossover utility vehicle (CUV) segment.
And what a bet it was. “Design and engineering were under huge pressure with the Edge,” says Mark Schirmer, product communication manager at Ford. “It was more than just another product launch. It was going to change what Ford stands for.”
Now, designing and launching a vehicle that will define a new category of automobiles is no small undertaking. It would end up costing in excess of half a billion dollars and taking thousands of team members more than three years to complete the Edge project.
Ford didn't have much of a choice. With SUV sales slumping, the company realized it hadn't been paying enough attention to the evolving tastes of U.S. drivers. Consumers were looking for alternatives to their oversized SUVs, and the Ford team predicted CUVs would soon become The Next Big Thing.
Unlike traditional SUVs, which are built on a truck platform, CUVs—including the Edge—are built over a car platform and drive like a sedan, but boast greater carrying capacity.
“People wanted the drive and comfort of a car with the towing capacity, flexibility and storage space of an SUV,” says Elaine Bannon, chief nameplate engineer— Ford's name for lead project manager—on the Edge.
In 2003, the company officially launched the effort to build its very own Ford-branded CUV. “We saw an opportunity to fill a hole in our own portfolio and in the marketplace,” she says.
The project also marked a re-engineering of Ford's forecasting strategies and the way it tracked customer needs. The Edge was to serve as a huge symbol of Ford's newfound agility.
Those were some awfully high expectations for one project.
Not Just Another CUV
There were already a few CUVs on the market when Ms. Bannon first began the Edge project. With that in mind, the company decided it needed a vehicle that wouldn't just add to the crossover niche—it would have to define it.
It was more than just another product launch. It was going to change what Ford stands for.
—Mark Schirmer, Ford Motor Co.
“It had to be sexy and bold and feel like an extension of the driver's personality,” Ms. Bannon says. It also had to be safe and cost less than $26,000. “That's not easy. There is an art to this job, and it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to pull it off,” she says.
Ms. Bannon and her engineering team set to work developing a project plan that included a defined concept, a calendar, milestones, benchmarking plans, a budget and delivery dates. The project also required allocating several thousand employees to the dozens of teams required to design and launch a new vehicle: strategic planning, marketing, product development, parts purchasing, supply management and technical assurance, along with manufacturing, engineering and design.
“The size of the investment to produce a new vehicle is huge and hard to quantify,” Mr. Schirmer says.
Part of Ms. Bannon's job was to assess and evaluate those costs to ensure the project stayed on target to deliver a great vehicle at a profitable price. “When you head into a project like this, you pull apart all aspects of the costs and goals to identify what you need to do to accomplish a balanced value proposition and to maintain that balance from inception all the way to the launch,” she says.
Early on, her team realized that to achieve that value proposition, Ford would need to expand its manufacturing facility in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. That investment could also accommodate production of future Ford vehicles, but it added considerable costs to the Edge budget.
Throughout the three-year design phase, Ms. Bannon's team constantly returned to the value proposition targets to make sure any project additions or changes stayed within budget. It also regularly participated in “futuring” discussions to identify what had changed in the marketplace since the original design strategy discussions.
“You constantly have to go back and reassess costs and goals to be sure you are staying on track as you manage the project through its life cycle,” Ms. Bannon says. “Throughout it all, down to the smallest detail, we knew what it would cost and whether we were meeting our targets. It's all about managing the details.”
Talk It Out
Early in the design process, project team members created a model of the person they were going after with the Edge. “Our ‘customer’ helped us stay focused on what the market wanted,” says Doyle Letson, chief designer for the Edge.
But this was no mere virtual model. “We did extensive groundwork—going to customers’ homes and interviewing them about their lifestyle and exploring what kinds of furniture and electronics they have,” he says. “We balanced, sporty proportions and the goal of a powerful, safe and comfortable ride.
“There is a lot of give and take before we get a package that we all like,” Mr. Letson says. “We decide what features feel important and sometimes we make tradeoffs.”
For example, the Edge's interior features a number of metal-finish trim pieces matched with rich grains to mimic what Mr. Letson saw in customers’ homes. “Metal-finish pieces cost more than plastic, but we felt it was an important design element to incorporate,” he says.
The engineers also spent hundreds of hours fine-tuning the Edge's interior ambiance. They took clay modelers into a wind tunnel to finesse the mirror design, ultimately reducing wind noise by two decibels.
Much of the early design was done using computer-aided engineering (CAE) tools that let the teams create believe that the more you learn about customers, the more you understand what they want from an automobile.”
You constantly have to go back and reassess costs and goals to be sure you are staying on track as you manage the project through its life cycle. —Elaine Bannon, Ford Motor Co.
And the team did indeed learn a lot—in a wide variety of areas.
“No one asks questions like a designer,” Mr. Letson says of the experience. “You can't have a guy whose specialty is powertrains asking questions about proportion. We all had different goals.”
Once they felt they understood what the customer wanted, the engineering and design teams began a complex dance, back and forth between the desire for multiple virtual 3-D models of vehicles throughout the project. Doing so allowed team members to test-run ideas and collaborate on ways to improve them. “In the past, we designed full-sized models of test vehicles, and that was incredibly labor-intensive,” Mr. Letson says.
It was also limiting—requiring the teams to choose only two or three designs to produce because it was such an expensive and time-consuming process. With the CAE tools, the teams could create as many designs as they liked and share them with each other and the stakeholders before ever manufacturing anything.
Time to Hit the Road
— Ford conducts research on the crossover utility vehicle market.
— The Edge vehicle concepts are created on paper and in clay.
— The Edge program officially kicks off.
— Management agrees on the project's general parameters, including costs, a production timeline, and financial and personnel commitments.
— Management locks in on the rough design.
— The vehicle's content, including the V6 engine, auto transmission, front- and all-wheel drive, and two rows of seats are agreed upon.
— No major changes will be made after this point, but issues such as fabrics, colors and other smaller details are still being considered.
— Driveable prototypes are hand-built, and Ford showcases the vehicle at the Detroit Auto Show.
— The few prototypes undergo rigorous testing and miles of driving.
— To speed up this phase, some testing is conducted on 3-D virtual models designed using computer-aided engineering tools.
— The team finishes refining the prototypes.
— Pieces are ready to be built, and early builds begin at the factory.
— Production begins in earnest.
— The first wave of vehicles are constructed and held at the factory to be scrutinized for consistency and quality.
— The “OK to Ship” decision is given.
— U.S. sales begin.
A Room With a View
One of the most difficult design features to achieve was the oversized two-piece sunroof, which Ford claims is the largest in the industry. “It mimics loft living,” Mr. Letson says. “People like a lot of natural light filtering into their spaces.”
Accomplishing this feat meant more work, however. “Any time you put glass in a roof, particularly a sunroof as large as this one, you add all sorts of complications. There is additional weight, reduced structural rigidity, the potential for more wind noise and even a safety aspect, but we really wanted this, and we stuck to our guns,” Mr. Letson says.
Adding the roof required the team to create a stronger support structure, manage the squeak and rattle issues that can arise from such a design—and make sure there was still adequate headroom. “Having a solid roof with no big holes in it certainly makes it easier,” Ms. Bannon says. “We had to innovate and get creative.”
The initial sunroof design was tested on a concept vehicle showcased at the 2004 auto show in Detroit, Mich., USA, to garner customer feedback and build excitement.
The team also worked to accommodate consumer demands for greater access to technology in their vehicles. Designers incorporated an MP3 player jack, console laptop storage, a next-generation DVD-based navigation system and factory-installed Sirius satellite radio.
“You have to balance so many pieces in a vehicle, from structural and engineering components, to physical appeal and the look and feel,” Mr. Schirmer says. “Everyone really had to work together to make it happen.”
Cruising Past the SUV
The Edge had its North American launch in late 2006—nice timing, as it turns out. The CUV category now ranks as the fastest-growing vehicle segment in the United States. CUV sales in the United States surpassed two million in 2005 and exceeded traditional SUV sales for the first time in 2006.
Early sales data show the Edge is already making its way to the forefront of the popular new vehicle class. In February 2007, in only its second full month on sale, the Edge earned a 12.5 percent share of the medium CUV segment, and in March sales of the Edge were double those in February. It also won the Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and won the 2007 Truck of the Year from multicultural multimedia company On Wheels Inc.
“The success of the Edge proves that Ford can bring the same customer-focused intensity we bring to trucks to new segments of the market,” says Mark Fields, president of Ford Motor Co., The Americas. “Frankly, it's exactly what we mean by ‘producing more of the products that people want to buy.’”
Even with all the kudos, Mr. Letson is still hard at work. “I‘m at the plant daily to make sure things are going well and no modifications are needed,” he says.
He and Ms. Bannon are also tweaking the design for next year's model based on discussions with some of Ford's 3,800 dealers and customer comments on auto websites. Upgrades include a Bluetooth outlet and remote hands-free voice and text messaging.
“Every day I’m online looking at customer data,” Ms. Bannon says. “We always want to know what we can do to improve, refine or add excitement to the next model.”
This project team is settling in for a nice, long drive. PM
Sarah Fister Gale is a Chicago, Ill., USA-based freelance business writer.
PM NETWORK | JULY 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG