Uncommon Thinking

Lear has an idea that could make vehicle interiors more configurable, in much the same way as computers are. When it comes to integrating electronics and interiors, this is just the beginning.

 Lear Corporation unveiled its new product development center in Dearborn, MI, this past May. While this building used to house United Technologies Automotive prior to Lear's acquisition of the company last year, now it's home to the Lear Electronics and Electrical Division (LEED). To prove that they did more than just change the sign in front of the building, Lear is boasting of the $13-million price tag for renovations and enhancements. While that kind of coin may be a drop in the bucket to some in this business, it's a safe bet that LEED president D. William Pumphrey doesn't view the investment as trivial. In fact, a better way to describe it might be crucial, as Lear is betting big on its ability to win business with new interior systems ideas that have better-integrated electronics ("Intertronics" in Lear-speak).

Strategy
Pumphery maintains that the seamless design and development of Intertronics will not only allow for "evolutionary" progress leading to cost reductions, simplified assembly via parts consolidation, and quicker adaptation to new challenges like 42-volt systems, but that Lear's co-located teams are poised to develop "revolutionary ideas of integration."

"If you continue to work in a world where you have different suppliers, and you say, ‘Work together to take cost out," one of those companies doesn't want to do that because it doesn't just take cost out, it takes its whole business out!" says Pumphery. "What we're focusing on is complete, true integration." And while it remains to be seen if the recent rash of supplier consolidations, Lear-UTA included, will truly eliminate the inefficient boundaries between companies, it's clear that this goal is at the frontier of supply chain management.

Computer-like
One of the most compelling ideas at Lear is common architecture, a way to build interiors in much the same way that custom-order vendors like Dell and Gateway configure computers. What Lear has done is standardize the load-bearing and safety-related systems in five interior systems: instrument panel and console; seating; door and interior trim; overhead; and flooring and acoustical. Each of these systems uses interchangeable modular components with built-in electronic connections, switches, and electrical distribution systems. This allows an interior to be configured in numerous different ways, just by plugging in different combinations of modules.

Common architecture is said to offer cost savings by allowing multiple platforms or brands to use the same basic structure, but with different modules. This approach could also shorten lead times in bringing new designs to market, and give consumers more choices while still retaining some of the manufacturing advantages of low variability. Pumphery maintains that consumer-focus is an important driver of Lear's Intertronics strategy: "We're able to use consumer interests and wants and apply them to this integration."

 

Architecture design
Common Architecture: As easy as... In the case of the IP, the common architecture design (1) uses a single lower platform and structural cross-car ducting, electrical architecture, steering column support bracket, pedals, and HVAC unit case. The reconfigurable items include modules for the top cover, gauges, displays, console features, steering wheels, and the control panel for the audio and HVAC systems. (New flat flexible cable technologies allow for a driver-accessible storage space behind this panel.) At the 2000 SAE World Congress, Lear showed a luxury version of the common architecture IP (2), which could easily become a funky "Gen Y" design (3). Fashion aside, the implications of common architecture are intriguing: could a model like this push the automotive industry closer to the standardized commodity world of the computer industry?