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October 8, 1999

4 Min Read
Automotive designs are going modular

Is Henry Ford, the man who made mass production possible using assembly lines and piece-part suppliers, turning in his grave? Today's automotive OEMs aren't really interested in the answer. They have a new mantra, one that Ford might even like if he were still alive. They want modules, not parts. And by whittling down their supplier list, it seems they want these modules to come from a select group of Tier Ones known as systems integrators. Meanwhile, scores of automotive suppliers of all tier levels are now being asked, once again, to change the way they do business. And one of the primary changes involves design.

Integrators responsible for an assembly are delegating more of the design work for subassembly parts to their suppliers. In addition, the Big Three now hold design competitions, in which several suppliers and their related tiers are allowed to design modules and position themselves for the next vehicle generation. The integrator with the best design gets the business. Criteria for winning include innovation and cost efficiency.

In a recent interview with IMM, two modular-assembly specialists at GE Plastics Automotive-John Madej, director of marketing for modular systems development, and Jim Puscas, market development manager for front ends-related these and other current trends driving automotive design. "In general, one of the challenges that Tier One suppliers see from the OEM is that they are now responsible for the entire system, not just the part," Madej says. "Another interesting change, as integrators begin to work with tier suppliers at all levels, is that former competitors may turn out to be suppliers or customers."

Restructuring to Meet Demands
Madej believes this sourcing issue could involve some restructuring in the industry. "Automakers may allow integrators to source components wherever they choose, which is the true integrator role; however, it's possible that we'll continue to see some direct sourcing by the OEM in which it specifies where components are purchased."

As OEMs move toward purchasing a module from one Tier One integrator with all other suppliers moving to the Tier Two level, companies that want to retain their Tier One status are buying smaller suppliers and reorganizing their operations. According to Puscas, front-end modules are one example. They consist of four main subassemblies: cooling, forward lighting, appearance (fascia), and energy management (bumper beam). "Some tiers are forming groups within their business that do only front ends. These groups used to be functional chimneys. For example, a forward lighting supplier (Hella) and cooling system supplier (Behr) recently entered into a joint venture to produce front-end modules in Europe."

As integrators reorganize, they may rely on Tier Two and Tier Three molders for those design and processing areas they lack (see related story). "Suppliers will want to retain their expertise and cost positions in certain areas," Puscas says. "It's important to have core competency."

Door Module Starts Trend
One of the first modular systems that Madej and Puscas worked on at GE was the Super Plug door module in 1995. Since that time, GE has torn down at least 25 door systems and designed modular versions. "From a resource standpoint, we have set ourselves up for the modular trend," Madej says. "We changed our facility, redesigning half of the building into the Innovation Center, to be able to maximize our process." That process is divided into five areas: benchmark and teardown, DFMA (design for manufacturability analysis using Boothroyd Dewhurst software), concept development and brainstorming, CAE and predictive engineering, and real-life correlation and prototype testing.

For door modules, the first four steps of the process can now be accomplished in a mere three weeks. "We are still working on reducing the cycle time for front-end modules and wiper systems," says Puscas. But members of a module engineering team, including OEMs, integrators, molders, and moldmakers, come to the Center and often colocate for weeks until a project is completed. "We've had people here every day since it opened," adds Madej.

Lessons learned at the Center can be applied to many automotive design projects. "We learned one of the key strategies for modules from door systems," Puscas says. "We can design something that will work, but the key is to get the business case to make sense. From an engineering standpoint, we optimize the design for performance, but we also optimize for cost. It's no use working on a program that won't meet cost targets even though it performs."

In fact, an underlying feature of all of the processes is taking cost out, a pivotal concern in the automotive industry. With modular design, there may be a markup issue, because the integrator is marking up all the parts before assembling them. Successful designs must take out cost.

Front ends a la carteFront-end modules are definitely a reality in Europe, where several suppliers are manufacturing them. The Volkswagen Group, including Audi, is leading the pack of OEMs that purchase front-end systems. Several European Tier Ones-Hella-Behr, Valeo, Expert Components, and Faurecia-have a front-end system in production.

Although there are no domestic Tier One integrators producing full front-end modules yet, three U.S. suppliers are known to have business plans supporting front-end system development. These include Visteon, Delphi, and Magna.

Contact information
GE Plastics Automotive
Southfield, MI
John Madej
Phone: (248) 351-8064
Fax: (248) 351-8533
Web: www.geplastics.com
E-mail: [email protected]

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