Ford's Product Development Center, or PDC, is located near the Henry Ford Museum, and Ford's Dearborn, MI, test track. Literally next door is Ford's Design Center; while across the street is the dynamometer building where the engines that won Le Mans and the Indy 500 in the 1960s were developed. Despite being surrounded by history and creativity, the PDC itself is a depressing place: the walls are painted an indeterminate shade of gray and punctuated by ridged glass panels well above shoulder height, executive assistants are sequestered in-between these walls and those of the offices beyond, and the offices themselves-though spacious-are painted the same hideous color as the hallway. About halfway down the corridor is the office of Hau Thai-Tang, director of Advanced Product Creation and Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT). It's a wonder he and his team can be creative at all in such depressing surroundings.
"At the end of the day," says Hau Thai-Tang, director of Advanced Product Creation and Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT), "we're trying to do more products faster. One of the key enablers for that is kicking off programs that have compatible assumptions. We didn't do a great job of that in the past." Thai-Tang's job as head of Advanced Product Creation is to go beyond the platform capability studies that determine how many derivatives can be built off a single base, beyond the external market data within which new market segments hide, and reconcile the business equation with the hardware assumptions and the design assumptions with the bill of process. Not doing this, he warns, "causes a lot of churn, revisions to the product assumptions, and it results in late changes that increase costs and cause reliability and quality gaps."
The time spent as chief engineer on the Mustang gave Thai-Tang a vision of success for his new position: assumptions that are attainable. This is a far cry from what happens in most new vehicle programs, where the cost and functional objectives are misaligned, the revenue assumptions don't support the variable cost targets, or the volume assumption is incompatible with the available capacity at the plant. "These are traditional incompatibilities that can make it very difficult for the team to execute," says Thai-Tang, "and they are often led by being overly aggressive in our market assumptions. That's what leads to subsidizing sales with incentives of some sort." Rather than handing the chief engineer conflicting requirements that have no hope of intersecting on a Venn diagram, Thai-Tang is working to develop a process that delivers targets based on reasonable assumptions, no matter the vehicle.
"We are looking at this from a very holistic perspective," he says, "and that means going beyond adding doors, stretching wheelbases, and putting different body styles on a platform. It means trying to get to that true game changer, which is something that Ford has done very well in the past." Chasing this elusive beast is only possible if the rest of the company is on solid product ground, and the product cadence set out by Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president, Product Creation helps by delivering a set grouping of vehicles on a predetermined schedule over the next four years. This gives Thai-Tang and his team time to ponder what products might be in Ford's cupboard in the 2010 to 2020 timeframe.
"The challenge for the team is to discern the untapped consumer needs, and develop a concept that hits that sweet spot," he says. A small example of the thinking behind this effort is the "My Color" instrument lighting offered on the 2005 Mustang. "No one was asking for the chance to mix colors from three light sources to produce unique instrument cluster lighting," says Thai-Tang, "but our research said this was something the customer would want." That research, by the way, looked at real estate trends, specifically the trend toward look-alike housing developments and the effect this has on interior design. "The houses may look the same on the outside," he says, "but they are very different on the inside where people show their individuality. We saw the opportunity to offer Mustang buyers the chance to customize the interior of their vehicle while keeping the same 'exterior elevation' as the standard Mustang."
Should all this sound a bit too sanitary, don't forget the other half of Thai-Tang's job: director of Ford's Special Vehicle Team. Under John Coletti's control, SVT produced a number of serious go-fast vehicles for costs well below what mainstream engineering could achieve under the corporate rules they must follow. The supercharged Mustang Cobra, Lightning pickup, SVT Contour and Focus, Ford GT, and the basis for the 2006 Shelby GT500-sans the production car's live rear axle-came from Coletti's tight-knit engineering team, his ability to bend the system to his will, and to ignore the rulebook altogether when necessary. Thai-Tang's job is to merge this rag-tag skunk works operation into the mainstream operation without killing its spirit or ability to do what's best for the company-even when that is contrary to the mainstream organization's wishes.
As he bluntly puts it: "The balance that every performance niche brand tries to walk is building halo products and making money." On one side is the low-volume credible performance vehicle that is break-even at best. On the other side are enhanced performance products that require less investment, have pretty good margins, and sell in numbers that make money for the company at the expense of its performance image. They are vehicles that, almost inevitably, devolve into paint-and-spoiler packages at most companies, something Thai-Tang must keep from occurring. Ultimately, this diminution of image can lead to the death of the performance brand. "What we want to do is a little of both," Thai-Tang states, "with vehicles like the Shelby GT500 and Sport Trac Adrenalin polishing the Ford oval and SVT brand."
To hear many in the Ford and supplier communities tell it, however, the SVT brand will fade away and be replaced by an "Engineered by SVT" identifier that covers all of the vehicles touched by the group's magic wand. SVT-engineered halo cars like the Ford GT, unfortunately, will be few and far between thanks to limited resources, while more mainstream performance vehicles become the norm. Even the unique SVT dealer body, it is strongly rumored, will eventually disappear. What remains unclear is whether or not these SVT engineered line extensions will be shared with Mercury and Lincoln.
To give SVT the greatest possible leeway to produce vehicles that are more than tape stripes and special colors requires Thai-Tang to meld the needs of SVT with those of Advanced Product Creation. "For SVT to be successful," he says, "we must think about, consider, and accommodate a performance derivative when we sit down to design a vehicle. Otherwise it becomes very difficult for SVT to 'bolt on' performance downstream." Each new vehicle coming out of the advanced team, he says, will have a body structure, suspension kinematics, and weight distribution that can support SVT's needs. And this attention to detail ultimately should improve the breed. "I'm in a pretty good position, doing the advanced product stuff, to think about the potential SVT derivatives and accommodate those needs," he says. With any luck, the dull dreariness of the building he works in won't stand in the way of creatively achieving those goals.