Looking good doesn't have to cost a fortune.
Consumers have learned that lesson at department stores like K-Mart and Target which are pushing new designer brands, and the auto industry can create the same styling cachet in their products by putting extra considerations to aesthetics in the pre-production phase for cars and trucks.
Consider car seats, said Bill Fluharty, vice president industrial design and new product strategy for North America for Plymouth, Mich.-based Johnson Controls Inc., during an Aug. 2 session at the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
If automakers and their suppliers can use standardized frames and structural components for the parts of seats that the consumer will never see, then they can spend more time improving the exterior skin that they can see and feel.
``The more we can agree on some common architectures, on some common standards, it frees us up to be innovative and go after unique styling,'' Fluharty said. ``Craftsmanship shouldn't have to cost more. We can put the money where it's going to count for the consumer.''
Enhanced design also is possible through early collaboration between suppliers and the automaker, he said. If interiors makers are involved early in developing an overall environment to the vehicle, they can feed into a unified look at a time when the car exists mainly on the drawing board, and it doesn't cost anything to change the material.
The later they are brought in, the higher the costs to make any changes, and the smaller the opportunity to actually create a cohesive look.
``Cars are the only products, I think, that exist today as a consumer product where you can create that complete experience,'' Fluharty said. ``You're getting in a car, in a cabin, and consumers notice when something's not right, something's out of place. If you used a carry-over component and it's a different material than the brand-new one or the color doesn't match, or the grain's not quite right, they're going to notice.''
Computerized analytical tools will be used more and more on future product design to improve development, noted David Leone, chief engineer for Detroit-based General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac SIGMA prestige vehicle architecture team. With the potential for joint development, engineers and purchasing executives both will have roles to play in new vehicles.
``You can use the analogy that engineering is like the drivetrain and chassis and purchasing is the tires, having direct contact with the suppliers,'' he said. ``Engineering will have to approve every source direction, but [purchasing and suppliers] play a key role.''
Communication through the various supplier levels can improve the overall process, Fluharty said. If machinery specialists on the shop floor are aware of new trends and styles, they can adapt equipment to answer those material demands. Likewise, if designers know of new production capabilities, they can take advantage of that for future products.
``The designers need to worry about whether [the design] will withstand the manufacturing process. The designer has to almost understand the toolmaker's job, so when they get together to talk about the product, they can collaborate vs. fight about what's going to happen.
``At the same time, the toolmaker understands that what the designer's doing isn't just because it's trendy.''