Long before Ford Motor Co. officially unveiled its newest high-volume sedan, it was taking its suppliers down a new digital road, and laying the groundwork for future product development.
The Fusion, which goes into production this year, is Ford's first all-digitally developed vehicle. The Dearborn-based automaker required all its suppliers to use the same engineering software to ease the sharing of information, and even programmed-in the workstations for the assembly line to ensure the parts would come together easily on the shop floor.
Within two years, Ford expects to use the same digital requirements for all of its new North American products.
``This is not about winnowing of the supply base,'' Fusion chief engineer Brian Vought said during a Jan. 19 presentation at the Automotive News World Congress in Dearborn. ``This is about [making] more products faster, getting it out the door and getting it done. That's reality.''
For the Fusion, Ford required all suppliers to use the latest version of Catia software, made by France's Dassault Systemes SA. Some companies already used the previous version, but needed the upgrade for truly seamless data sharing, he said.
``Now we have modeling uploaded to check for every reality before we even cut the tool - and the tool is cut digitally as well,'' Vought said.
General Motors Corp. likewise is moving further into all-digital development, said Lori Queen, vehicle line executive for small cars.
``Data management is a fine art,'' she said.
With the new Pontiac Solstice sports car, Detroit-based GM and its suppliers were so certain of their digital engineering that they went straight to production tools, without taking the time for prototypes.
``That really stretched a lot of people's comfort zones,'' Queen said.
Twenty years ago, the auto industry took more than six years to create a new car, she said. By the 1990s, that period had dropped to four years or less. Now a vehicle may go from concept to the streets within two years.
``In the future, people will not even spend time to draw the parts,'' predicted Bernard ChÃ rles, president and chief executive officer of Paris-based Dassault. ``When the time comes to create a hood or a door, you will begin with a standard shape from the library and morph it into the shape you want.''
Suppliers need to embrace the digital future if they are going to survive, said Mark Hogan, president of Magna International Inc., an Aurora, Ontario-based firm that controls interior supplier Intier Automotive and exterior specialist Decoma International Inc.
Hogan estimates 70 percent of a car's value will be produced by suppliers in the near future. The more value flows beyond the automakers' gates, the more need for collaboration - and that collaboration will strengthen suppliers that are willing to adapt.
``If you look at the financial columns of the North American plastics suppliers at large, they're in grave situations - and in some cases teetering on bankruptcy,'' he said.
``Part of the reason is that product has been commoditized. If you don't have technology to marry with your processes to stay ahead, by definition there's going to be more of a bidding process. The earlier involvement by the supplier base is going to bring back stronger, sharper products.''