Hau Thai-Tang, Ford's executive vice president of product development and purchasing, has a telling story about the Ka subcompact. At one point, Ford sold a Ka subcompact in South America. It also sold a completely different Ka in India. And over in Europe, Ford sold yet another Ka that was, again, completely different (and actually was based on a Fiat). Three versions of one nameplate, "with no sharing whatsoever." It was extremely inefficient.
That's why Ford is pushing to use modular platforms that can share components between vehicles. Thai-Tang told reporters in Detroit on Thursday that Ford's plan is to use just five platforms for all of its vehicles in all of its markets. Specifically, those platforms are: a front-wheel-drive unibody (i.e. small cars and crossovers), a rear-wheel-drive unibody, a commercial-vehicle unibody (i.e. a van), a body-on-frame platform (i.e. trucks) and an all-electric car platform.
"We think we can serve all of the markets," with vehicles built from those building blocks, Thai-Tang says. The flexibility of the new platforms means Ford shouldn't ever need more than five, he says: "We don't want to proliferate more diverse platforms than those five."
Take the C2 platform used for the, for instance. Thai-Tang says that can be stretched enough to turn it into a compact crossover, and shrunk small enough to make, say, a subcompact like the Ka. Where Ford's old platforms couldn't be stretched much (mainly in wheelbase), the new ones will be able to have much more varied lengths and widths.
The push to shrink the number of vehicles platforms comes as Ford works hard to freshen its lineup. Today Ford's vehicles are an average of 6.7 years old. By 2020, the goal is for that to fall to 3.3 years. "In our business, it's like selling fish and vegetables," Thai-Tang jokes. "Fresher is better." According to Ford's data, that'll give it the freshest lineup of any rival mainstream automaker by 2020.
The path to that is new vehicles. In the next five years, Ford plans to introduce nine new models (of which seven will be SUVs or trucks). That'll push Ford's total number of nameplate offerings to 23, from its current level of 20 -- that includes, of course, the cancellation of some vehicles.
"This is not us shrinking and reducing our size in the marketplace, it's all about reallocating our resources into the marketplace where we can win," Thai-Tang says.
How does sharing modules save money? Well, in its prior model, Ford could essentially share a chassis among multiple cars, but nothing else. The Mustang team would ask for funding to develop a climate-control system and then the Edge crossover team would ask to develop an entirely separate climate-control system, Thai-Tang says. That means more expenditure on engineering, testing, purchasing and so on. Despite efforts to share platforms -- the strategy of offering one vehicle in multiple markets was called One Ford -- only about 30 percent of each car's cost could be shared between vehicles.
Module-sharing will work differently by forcing engineers to pick and choose building blocks for vehicles, almost like clicking Lego together. One suspension setup might be able to be shared among multiple cars over a decade, for instance, whereas Thai-Tang says that infotainment systems could be updated more often. With this arrangement, Ford says that up to 70 percent of the "value" (read: cost) of cars could be shared.
Other benefits: Ford expects bringing a new car to market will take 20 percent less time than before, Thai-Tang says. And because the company will develop fewer unique component sets, "It's going to help us improve our quality." Finally, buying parts in bigger quantities will help save money, which will "improve the value proposition" of new cars.
Thai-Tang is eager to point out that this sharing strategy does not, however, mean compromising on new vehicles. He says reports that the company's Ranger and from its other experiences building trucks. In other words: sharing modules means that "based on the Focus" isn't necessarily a bad thing., for instance, misunderstand the premise. Sure, it might use Focus components, but he says the off-roader would benefit from Ford's experience duty-cycle testing commercial vehicles, from the Trail Control feature in the new
"I can guarantee you with conviction that this [the 'baby Bronco'] is not just a dressed-up Focus," he says of the new off-roader, promising that Ford will "make sure it's an authentic and capable vehicle."
There will, of course, be some exceptions to when the five-platform strategy makes sense, especially when catering to low-cost emerging markets. The, for instance, is a great example. Though Ford has the engineering prowess to build such a vehicle, he says that the company couldn't do so at a price low enough for the intended customers. In those cases it makes sense to co-develop cars with local joint-venture partners.