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When you think of the service economy, it probably involves something like the purchase of a value meal at McDonald's, not the development of automotive components. But as automakers have increasingly outsourced not only parts but the engineering skills necessary to develop those parts, some suppliers have begun to provide a full line of development services and to structure their organizations around their new, expanded missions. Case in point: Lear Corporation (Southfield, MI). Three years ago Lear instituted a product development methodology called "People-Vehicle-Interface," (PVI). Lear used PVI as a framework around which it re-focused its business strategy and streamlined product development. Patrick Murray, vp of Lear's technology division: "Over the past few years we have grown from a manufacturing-minded company to a service-minded company. PVI represents a fundamentally huge shift for us from being primarily a manufacturer to providing an entire line of services."
PVI consists of six steps: consumer research, industrial design and visualization, engineering, technical analysis, manufacturing process development and validation. Murray says, "Before instituting PVI, we did not think in terms of total product development on every project, both advanced and production, now we do." This mindset has had a profound effect on Lear's internal organization. Lear has done away with the vertical or "chimney" management structure and mixed disciplines together. "There is no longer an engineering department at Lear, or an industrial design studio," says Murray, "We don't have independent groups, we have initiatives where engineers, industrial designers and market researchers work together."
This structure has lead to a less linear development process with more creative give-and-take. And the integral role of consumer research has helped to eliminate themes with no practical application and to focus efforts on customer-driven initiatives. One such initiative is the new "Flip Pack": a hinged, two-tiered armrest switch panel. Lear learned that its seat adjustment controls were often hard to manipulate because of the narrow gap between the seat and the door. And since the controls were hidden from view, drivers could not make a visual check of which seat adjustment they wanted to engage. So a Lear team came up with the Flip Pack, which moves the seat adjustment switches up to the armrest where they are easy to see and access, while reducing clutter by placing them on a second, hidden layer.
Murray says that the presence of diverse disciplines on the same team has also lead to more creative solutions to manufacturing problems. He cites a project in India that needed to cost-effectively mold interior panels for an upcoming vehicle program. The team in charge couldn't apply traditional methods because of a lack of consistent electrical power, so they developed a low-tech hydro-molding machine that doesn't rely on electricity. It is compact (about the size of a desk), flexible and only cost the company about $8000. "The input of creative design, engineering and tech analysis people made that happen," says Murray.
A bigger test of PVI's effectiveness will come next year, when the first major vehicle programs to be developed fully under the new regime will hit the market.