Changes in how Ford Motor Co. designs its vehicle interiors have helped save the company millions of dollars. But the effort has not compromised the individuality of cars such as the new 2005 Mustang, according to a project team's leader.
The new model still captures the essence of the iconic pony car that launched 40 years ago, he said. But it sure wasn't easy.
``This is harder than anything else I've ever done,'' said Terence Duncan, a design manager with the Dearborn, Mich., carmaker.
And he's created office furniture, medical products, other automotive components and run his own design studio. In the automotive market, there are so many more safety restrictions and requirements now than before - from air-bag regulations to ergonomic considerations - that every interior element faces a series of hurdles that somehow must be accommodated.
Those requirements also, however, create opportunities for innovative materials and processes that can help address such challenges. At Ford, ``we're seeking high-end materials that aren't wood and maybe not even leather, and yet are environmentally responsible.'' In that area, he even gave kudos to a competitor.
``I take my hat off to [General Motors Corp.]. They've done a wonderful job using plastics.'' And he praised plastic material suppliers, particularly DuPont Engineering Polymers and GE Plastics, for their continuing efforts to deliver resins that address new performance demands.
Though the 2005 Mustang - slated to go on sale Sept. 29 - is perhaps less a plastics showcase than some other models, ``plastics played a huge role'' in certain applications.
For example, he said it was vital in helping Ford meet head-impact requirements in components such as the ``amazingly complex'' A-pillar, the post between the windshield and the side windows, and also above the windows.
Duncan, speaking April 3 in Pittsburgh to 200-plus students and professionals at the Mideast District conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America, said he spearheaded a new ``component strategy'' when he joined Ford from United Technologies Automotive about five years ago.
Each vehicle - from the Taurus to the Mustang to the F150 pickup truck - was treated as its own business group, and each group designed, for example, its own style of radio.
``We had 34 radio families, which created an astronomical cost disadvantage,'' Duncan said.
Under the new strategy, Ford chose to standardize certain components, such as radios, switches and mirrors, across its entire fleet, while allowing other parts to remain vehicle-specific.
With the single move of going to just one radio family, the company saved $100 million a year, Duncan said.
But the designer also ``is responsible for the emotional desirability of the product,'' he pointed out, explaining why those creative types tend to fight with other departments. ``Sometimes cost has won out, resulting in affordable yet undesirable models.''
Such is not the case, he claims, with the new Mustang.
``There's a harmony of detail on the '05 Mustang that I've not seen in any Ford vehicle. I've not seen it anywhere except in BMW or VW,'' he said.
And such factors can evoke passion in consumers, especially avid fans of classic cars such as the '60s-era Mustangs. The design team opted to use a lot of brushed aluminum in the new model's interior - in the steering wheel, on the doors and extensively on the instrument panel. That was expensive but evoked a certain high-end, retro spirit.
Duncan said his team members also wanted to make the shifter knob from milled aluminum - until they found out that each would cost $180, quickly prompting them to conclude: ``I guess we can mold it.''
He suggested the '05 Mustang is likely to be the last model ever to boast a three-spoke steering wheel, since pending air-bag regulations will make such a design impossible.
But such attention to detail is vital, since so much is riding on the new model, even though its projected annual sales of 200,000-220,000 units is modest compared with such huge sellers as the F150 truck.
Duncan's 35-person design group works on all programs in the company, ranging from instrument panel clusters, steering wheels, badges and interior mirrors to climate controls, graphic-design labels and family-entertainment systems. The entertain- ment system is becoming such a huge part of automotive interiors, ``We've almost become a consumer electronics design group.''
Meantime, he also noted that Ford recently took back in-house much of its seat development. ``We had been toying with outsourcing it,'' he said, but doing so resulted in perfectly adequate seats that lacked harmony with the rest of the interior.
``I'm very proud of what we're doing now,'' Duncan said. ``It would have been hard to say that five or six years ago.''