The interior has become a veritable battleground during the past decade. Though most of the fighting has taken place out of sight, it wasn't untilVolkswagen burst back onto the scene in 1995 that anyone began to think about the war and not each skirmish. The contrast couldn't have been more stark since VW, like GM, was a recent convert to Lopez-ism, the cost accountant's religion. Unlike GM, however, the sick sister from Wolfsburg was able to cut costs and still produce high-quality interiors.
The downside to better interiors across the model line up was that the more pedestrian VW brand vehicles encroached on their Audi brethren. However, it also meant both could make quantum leaps in perceived and actual quality, and take the game to the competition.
VW/Audi's interior blitzkrieg came at a time when the entire North American industry, not just GM, was preoccupied with cutting individual component costs. Cheap was cheap—and often looked it—but profitability was king. Once the domestic OEMs impressed Wall Street by wrestling the cost beast to the ground, they'd worry about making things look better before the competition could react. Or so they hoped.
Like VW, the Japanese automakers didn't cooperate because interior quality remained high despite a major downturn in Japan's economic fortunes. There was never a wholesale cheapening of the look or feel of the visible materials in Japanese cars, although Nissan went through a period of building excruciatingly uninspiring interiors from which it has yet to fully recover.
Thankfully, domestic automakers realize they have been left behind in the interior sweepstakes. Vehicles like the Ford Focus and Mondeo, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Saturn's L Series show there is an increasing awareness that interior design is an important purchase motivator, despite the continuous drumbeat for cost reductions.
Feeling the Pressure
Says Terri Tahnoose, Lear's Interior Harmony and Craftsmanship Manager, "The pressure is on all of us to take more money out of the interior. This is despite the fact that it is the most consistently visible part of the car to the consumer, and the place where they spend the bulk of their time." Yet this doesn't necessarily mean that the OEMs place cost before craftsmanship.
A Better Façade
Hidden in all of this is what is hidden, the pieces behind the façade that the customer never sees. With more variants being produced from fewer platforms, OEMs have an opportunity to carry over more of a vehicle's structure and architecture. This eliminates the costs associated with starting from scratch, spreads costs over a larger base, and increases the visibility of the money spent on the interior. A judicious OEM can produce a couple of complimentary designs, and mix and match pieces from each to produce further derivatives. The big question is how much this will cost.
|Audi's TT (below) and VW's Golf (second, below) share architecture, structure and some switchgear yet have a wildly different look and feel. The New Beetle shares the same underpinnings.|
At its base, an instrument panel is an injection molding to which paints and alternative finishes and materials are used to improve its look and feel. Soft-touch paint, however, adds labor cost because it often requires a multi-step process, and materials that look good in isolation often don't work in combination with those of a different type.
Vacuum-forming a skin over this base moves the look up a level, or two levels if foam backing is added. For greater definition of sharp angles or curves, a finish can be cast or sprayed on, which has the added benefit of increasing grain definition and consistency. Unfortunately, the price rises with each step up the ladder.
An alternative is to add dimples or other "technical" features to aid definition. However, adding colors or grains increases cost. Wrapping the IP in leather adds the most to the bottom line in terms of both materials and labor. Just don't expect to write this low-volume alternative against a long production run if you haven't planned for changes in either the economic or legislative spheres.
"It's simple to say that we should carry over today's unseen pieces," says Fieroh, "but can you say with reasonable certainty that you have the safety and economic changes covered through 2007?" Without proper planning, expect to freshen the IP's look while also making a number of costly changes to its structure and architecture.
Granted, finding the optimum solution isn't always easy, but there is one item that simplifies the process: the early involvement of all members of the team. "The interior team has to be involved in the process from the very start," says Lear's Tahnoose. "You have to look at the big picture long before a part is designed in order to determine where it will be used, and how."
Delphi's Hamashuk agrees: "The greatest integration comes in those things which are hidden from the customer, and those items are decided upon very early in the process. We need to be there to make sure the OEM is getting the optimal solution."
One area where early involvement
pays off is in on-board electronics and "infotainment" systems. "We have to provide an interior where the architecture doesn't radically change, and where we can still employ the latest technology," says Johnson Controls' Fieroh. "This allows the automaker to upgrade the systems—which are changing on an 18-month cycle in the consumer electronics world—without having to totally re-do the interior. It takes lots of discipline, but it saves lots of money, as well."
Suppliers say it isn't uncommon for them to wait 24 months after a vehicle's on-sale date before they turn a profit on the project. When combined with shorter design and development cycles, both suppliers and OEMs have an interest in carrying over as many pieces as possible. By mapping out the entire process and determining actual and expected content levels, the interior's architecture and underlying structure might span a 15-year period without extensive modification.
"Because of this, we have to package-protect as much as possible for changes in systems so that we can swap-out technologies," says Fieroh. As long as a new system does not go outside of those dimensions, a more advanced system can be put in its place as it comes online. "This is especially true in terms of electronics, which are on a very short lifecycle," he says, "but it also applies to major systems like HVAC. I can see locking a design in for five years, then putting a similarly packaged but new unit in its place in the sixth year."
The reason is simple. That new HVAC unit will have new features and a greater effect on the vehicle, says Delphi's Hamashuk. "There is the move to multi-zone control and sensing systems that measure the occupants' skin temperature rather than relying on a sensor buried in the IP," he says. "Plus, there is a move toward highly efficient blowers and motors to reduce current draw and efficiently manage energy inside the vehicle. If you only look at individual components, or don't plan for changes like this, you miss the savings that are part of a long-term systems approach."
Once the interior has been optimized, package protected and planned to a fare-thee-well, however, the job is only half done. This still leaves the problem of how the interior looks, feels, smells, how different it is on the outside compared to its kin, and what it costs per vehicle.
Contrasting trim, modified seats, production-ready finish of Johnson Controls' proposed Recaro edition PT Cruiser show one way to create a niche addition to a volume vehicle.
According to Zuzana Tauvinkl, a Lear Color and Trim manager, "We did one design that had an 80% carry over from vehicle-to-vehicle in one manufacturer's line. By judiciously designing the changes in the remaining 20%, we were able to significantly alter the interior's look and feel from over the platform's lifespan. We thought it was a great idea, but found that it is sometimes very difficult to change the way people think." As a result, a more conventional solution was used.
"Trim is one area where a change and can have a big effect on the look and feel of the interior," agrees Tahnoose. "It gives you the opportunity to promote a brand's image and the interior craftsmanship, but it takes a lot of advanced planning. You really have to know what you want to accomplish before you start." This is especially true since an interior engages all of the senses except taste.
"What doesn't make sense," says Tahnoose, "is that the OEMs have been shortsightedly taking so much money out of tactile materials recently." To combat this move, she suggests things like taking money out of the carpeting, and improving the quality of the floor mats while making certain they can be used in more than one vehicle. This lowers the per unit cost, but does not adversely affect the perceived quality of the vehicle. "Toyota has used this to great advantage," she says.
Foreign automakers also limit interior color combinations to four or less, nearly half that of the domestic automakers. "Color mastering all of the materials for one interior combination takes about one year," says Tauvinkl. "If you reduce the number of combinations, the time and money really add up. And a portion of the savings then can be put to use on issues that affect interior cost, quality, and craftsmanship." In addition, a single carpet can be used with two different interior colors. "Our ‘chameleon' carpet blends this limited palette in such a way that we can use one or two carpets to cover the entire vehicle line," says Tahnoose. It is an idea she thinks will gain acceptance as designers use contrasts or "complimentary differences" to promote brand image while differentiating or adding models.
As competition intensifies and distinctiveness and quality become key differentiators, the pressure to perform will increase on OEMs and suppliers alike. To attain their goals while saving money and satisfying the customer, a few rules must be followed.
Following these rules can't guarantee a better built, better looking, higher quality interior, but it will get you farther down the road faster. And that's half the battle.