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Dudder: Piquette Avenue

Sometimes, leaving the past behind leads you right back to where you started.

Despite being born in Detroit, raised in Dearborn, and living in Metro Detroit my entire life, I had never been to the Ford Piquette Avenue plant where Model T production began just over 100 years ago.

Despite being born in Detroit, raised in Dearborn, and living in Metro Detroit my entire life, I had never been to the Ford Piquette Avenue plant where Model T production began just over 100 years ago. A sturdy brick building, it is much as it was in those days, thanks as much to preservation efforts as to a combination of the city's inability to demolish old, unused structures and the uniquely American trait of abandoning that which is old and out-of-date and building new. The walls of this structure have seen the promise of a new industry, the birth of the moving assembly line (implemented at the much larger Highland Park plant in 1913), two world wars, post-war prosperity, riots whose effects still concuss the city and the psyche of its citizens, upturns, downturns, and a new century. It was here that Ford recently chose to outline its latest global cycle plan–specifically, its plans for the B, C, C/D, and commercial vehicle segments– and discuss why, this time, things will be different.

On reflection, the Piquette Ave. plant was the perfect location for the presentations made by Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group v.p. Global Product Development, Joe Hinrichs, group v.p. Global Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, and Jim Farley, group v.p. Marketing and Communications. That's because Ford's new product development strategy revolves around commonality-much like it did in 1908. Unlike all of the recent attempts Ford has made regarding global vehicle production, this time Kuzak and Co. promise universal vehicles tuned for each region and built in plants that use the same processes, tools, and follow the same sequence. If you looked into the darkened corners of the third floor where Henry Ford once had his office, you could almost see his ghost smile.

So what changed to make this plan different from all those that had come before? First, Ford's European offerings now sit at the top of the interior volume scale, making them close to American size. Thus, the B-segment Fiesta is almost C-class size, the Focus straddles the C and D segments, and the Mondeo-though classified as a C/D-class sedan-is more "D" than "C." As Kuzak stated: "The Fusion and Mondeo have the same size interior package, are within millimeters in exterior size, and the customers of each have the same performance expectations. So why aren't they the same car?" Frankly, Derrick, that's a question many of us have been asking ourselves for years, but we're glad to see you're onboard.

Second, Ford is determined to become a design leader. I'll admit, Ford of Europe's "kinetic" design language is sharply sophisticated and better resolved than Peugeot's similar styling, but it has not always been a design leader. Thus, simply relying on Europe to lead the way isn't a viable long-term solution. That's why, says Farley, "Derrick won't let a design proceed through the product development factory until it has design leadership-inside and out-with design progressives." With product development now configured as an industrial process with a specific sequence, there are virtual andon cords that can bring it to a stop until a problem is rectified. Not having a bold, emotive exterior ("A look unexpected from Ford," says Kuzak) triggers one of those cords, and it is located very early in the development chain. With any luck, this change will permanently eliminate the "dumbed down" look of recent American Fords, and prevent vehicles like that rolling Ambien, the Ford Five Hundred, from making it out the door.

Third, similar measures are in place to make certain future Fords are "Great to drive," "Great to be in," a "Great value for the dollar," and have "Great fuel economy." That's, uh, great-if Ford follows through with metrics that truly are superior to more than just their cross-town rivals. That change alone could break a string that made Ford, in terms of production volume, a truck company since June of 1968, and entice back car buyers who had to find somewhere else to go when Ford left them. Fourth, this is all supported by a global cycle plan for both vehicles and powertrains, a reduction in the number of architectures and an increase in the number of models, a plan to fully differentiate Fords from Mercurys from Lincolns, and-my heart be still-setting a single design and engineering lead for each platform and vehicle. It looks like Alan Mulally's reported remarks to Ford executives not long after he arrived-"You guys have been going out of business for 40 years and don't even realize it!"-really hit a nerve.

Still, in the soft, indirect light on the third floor of the Piquette plant that night, you could almost see the faces of the people who had worked there 100 years before. Simplicity, efficiency, commonality, and value were once the watchwords of Ford's growth and prosperity. With luck, they once again may lead the company forward. 

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