In 2005, Chrysler's senior executives got together to deal with a nagging issue that had been negatively impacting the automaker for years. While the exterior designs of its vehicles were scoring high with potential customers, the interior designs of its vehicles were full of cheap feeling and looking materials and there was less-than-stellar fit-and-finish. Complicating matters was the fact that Chrysler had just made a massive commitment to boost sales of its vehicles in Europe, where even high-volume vehicles commonly feature high-grade interior materials and world-class fit-and-finish. "We knew that if we wanted to compete in Europe, we'd have to play at their level when it came to doing interiors," says Klaus Busse, who joined Chrysler in 2005 to lead its advanced vehicle interior and component design studio, after spending 10 years working on interiors at Mercedes-Benz.
Busse and his team were tasked with fundamentally changing the way Chrysler designs and engineers its vehicle interiors. They focused their attention on the timeline Chrysler uses to develop its exterior and interior designs and made a startling discovery: theme development was taking place too late in the process. Historically, Chrysler designers would first sketch, conduct initial clay model development, and provide some CAD data support before arriving at the point of theme select, where designers and engineers would then narrow the themes for each interior and then refine the surfaces before selecting the final theme and then moving forward to final development.
When the '09 Dodge Ram began to move through the system in 2005, the team decided it wanted to move the clock forward on interior theme selection by as much as four months in order to provide an opportunity for suppliers, designers and engineers to work together to improve interior build quality and execution. "We had a healthy discussion as to whether moving theme selection forward was a good or bad thing, because the further away you move from the market you lose a bit more time to be closer to the customer's pulse," Busse says, adding the team determined exterior design themes are actually more reliant on initial customer perception and thus needed to be fresher, while the interior needed to focus on improved execution and build quality. The timing, as such, was changed. Additionally, the team decided to shift focus toward using more advanced digital tools and rapid prototype part builds to further improve development and validation efficiency. "We could have been satisfied with just shortening and rearranging the timeline and left it at that, but since we wanted to get two or three levels beyond where we were a few years ago, we had to use that time more effectively," Busse says.
Besides shuffling priorities, Chrysler came to the quick realization that it wasn't effectively leveraging a key constituency in the goal toward producing world-class interior components: the supply base. Traditionally, suppliers were provided a cost target when quoting for interior components and they were required to meet or exceed those targets with little input from the design team. This myopic focus caused lengthy negotiations that delayed decision-making and pushed development further down the schedule, causing unnecessary delays and issues as the vehicle program reached the production tooling commitment level. This concept changed when the '09 Ram entered the fray, with Chrysler adopting a "partnership" approach to working with its key suppliers, most notably Visteon. "We went into Visteon and sourced them right at the beginning of the program and we worked out our financial targets hand-in-hand so we could both benefit from our shared knowledge," Busse says, adding key perceived quality features of the Ram's interior would likely have been omitted if the team had followed the traditional approach. He points to the Ram's Laramie trim package as an example. Visteon suggested Chrysler use stitching on the top of the instrument panel to provide a more luxurious appearance. In the past, Chrysler would have balked at the added cost, but both teams worked together to hammer out ways to minimize it: "In the past, if we wanted to try to do something like that, the chance of pulling it off on time and on budget would have been smaller," Busse says. Likewise, Visteon worked closely with Chrysler's team to improve the build quality of the base ST and mid-grade SLT trim levels of the trucks, which still use hard plastic instrument panels. Chrysler wanted the panels to be two-toned, which traditionally would have required two pieces to be joined together, increasing the likelihood that panel gaps and seams could vary, while also requiring additional tooling investment. Visteon had its team work on using a two-tone, one shot injection molding process that would produce the instrument panel with no gaps, resulting in reduced tooling costs. "While this technology has been used on smaller parts, like door panels, I don't think it has been used on a piece the size of our instrument panel. Being able to identify the technology early, we were able to have the time to validate the process more effectively and we pulled it off and it saved cost, big time," Busse says.
The close relationship Chrysler is trying to foster between its interior component suppliers and its in-house design and engineering team requires more face time and a better understanding of what is expected at every level. Designers are relying on more 3D visualization tools to improve communication with the supply base on gap tolerances and fit-and-finish requirements. Regular meetings are held at various steps of the process to assure suppliers are completing required changes using visualization models. This, Busse says, helps to eliminate any potential for confusion as to what is expected: "We can sit down and spin the data for hours and once we find something, we can document it together and then start marking things up right on the data and we have immediate buy-in and everyone knows the priorities."
Chrysler has long touted its virtual product development tools as a key enabler in its plan to improve competitiveness through shorter speed to market and reduced investment in prototype part construction. Busse and his team have taken a different approach to the technology, relying less on the virtual world and more on physical prototypes for validation. "There is always this temptation to go 100% virtual because these tools seem so powerful and lead you to believe you can see everything, but we sometimes forget that the data is still 2D and the system is trying to fake a 3D environment. We found that when we would actually mill something out from the data that we spent months scrutinizing, we would discover a problem within seconds when looking at the milled piece," Busse says. As such Chrysler is relying on more rapid prototypes manufactured using stereolithography and foam milling technology. "Using these rapid prototyping tools we can get a detailed part back in about 24 hours and it's pretty cost sensitive, about $100 in materials," Busse says. Not only does rapid prototyping help in design but it allows Chrysler to limit the number of production tools that have to be developed and tweaked, reducing overall development costs and eliminating potential errors. Another advantage is production-grade parts are delivered much earlier in the process, sometimes even before a prototype vehicle has been built. Assembling these various production parts together without a physical vehicle posed another challenge: how does one validate build quality without a physical vehicle? Chrysler's team came up with a solution in the form of what it calls a "quality-assurance fixture"-basically an aluminum structure that mimics the dimensions of the actual interior-where production parts are put together to assure their build tolerances and appearance met established requirements.
Will this overall approach become a way of development throughout Chrysler? Only time will tell. Busse admits that sometimes it has been difficult, but the constituents are behind it: "This process has been an enormous change for the organization and it still is, but by having everyone buy into the process-marketing, product planning and the suppliers-all parties have now embraced it and view it as their own child, which has made it easier." And it has made the product better.