Let’s get some things straight. First, it’s not possible to build a vehicle or platform that meets the needs, requirements, or regulations of every nation on God’s green earth. I call this the “One size fits none” principle. Second, building more of something—whether it is a component, system, or car—eventually hits a point of diminishing returns. Eventually, the cost of sameness is higher than the savings to be gained by building another unit. Third, pulling more products off a single platform compromises them all. This is the “Jack of all trades, master of none” principle applied to cars and trucks. It can be deadly for the simple reason that although the financial reasons for doing more vehicle types from a common platform are seductive, the resulting vehicles are—with very few exceptions—not. Yet the industry is awash with giddy talk of the “savings” and “variety” and “volume” opportunities this methodology will bring.
If the geniuses out there spouting this nonsense would just be quiet for a minute, I’ll tell you what every OEM needs to know about platform sharing and flexibility: It can’t be done by following “conventional wisdom” for the simple reason that the wisdom needed is unconventional. Each OEM should concentrate on component sets and a low-cost flexible manufacturing structure, and insist that all vehicles in their lineup are package protected for and designed around common standards. That is, they must take the best durability, quality, reliability, and performance standards in their global enterprise and make them the de facto standard for every outpost. This not only destroys the dreaded “Not Invented Here” syndrome, it creates a situation in which you can adapt any vehicle to any major market around the world to fill gaps that otherwise would be left empty, and makes every vehicle “best in class.”
This strategy requires a global manufacturing policy that categorizes and segments each vehicle within the total vehicle portfolio; quantifies the differences in wheelbase, height and width; and produces a common build sequence and strategy that accommodates these differences. It may take a generation to complete, but the result is a set of vehicles that truly has a global reach and reduces the effort necessary to supply multiple divisions worldwide on either a niche or volume basis. Plus, factories can be kept closer to capacity than might otherwise be the case for the simple reason that you are producing more than just some “badge engineered” clone with a different name and trim level by giving the customer real choice. You can even mix-and-match Asian, European, and North American platforms to create variants more suited to their intended duty than is possible by pulling them all from one base from one side of the Atlantic or Pacific. Combine this with a truly flexible powertrain strategy (see last month’s column), and you have the beginnings of a system’s approach to product planning and manufacturing.
Until the excess capacity and oversized assembly plants are wrung out of the system—a process that will take up to 15 years to accomplish—the major OEMs will be forced to keep volumes high in a number of plants in order to meet their responsibilities to their shareholders and workers. Continuing to pursue a platform strategy is not a successful approach for creating market success that can be achieved and sustained.