When India's Tata Motors Ltd. set out to make the world's least-expensive passenger car, it knew it had to do more than simply remove parts from an existing vehicle.
It had to rethink every aspect of the car to meet a target of selling a complete vehicle for $2,500. That required what Warren Harris, president and chief operating officer of Tata Technologies Inc., calls frugal engineering something traditional carmakers may not understand.
A low-cost mindset is part of the DNA of an Indian engineer, Harris said Aug. 3, during the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. If [a typical auto-maker] was challenged with the responsibility of coming up with a low-cost vehicle, what they would probably do is position a price point that was just below what was previously the lowest-priced vehicle in the market, he said.
They would then take out just a bit of the content perhaps power windows or electronic locks but still fill the car with enough high technology and aesthetics to compete with other cars on the market.
It would be very difficult for a Western [automaker] to come up with a type of disruptive innovation that delivered a vehicle at 50 percent of what was previously the cheapest vehicle in the market, Harris said.
Tata Technologies, based in Novi, Mich., is a sister company to Tata Motors, the creator of the Nano, which went on sale in India in 2009. Both firms are part of Mumbai, India-based Tata Group. Tata Technologies supplied engineering support to Tata Motors throughout the development of the car.
To meet founder Ratan Tata's promised price, Harris said the automaker and its suppliers kept in mind the car's intended customers: motorcycle and scooter drivers who wanted an enclosed, safer vehicle but could not afford cars already on the market. The targeted drivers would not be looking for a conventional car, but very basic transportation at a low cost.
After early discussions about whether to use plastic body panels, the company stuck with a steel body but minimized curves to reduce the number of dies needed to make each panel.
The fuel-filler cap is under the hood, eliminating the cost of developing a separate access panel, and it is close to the fuel tank, reducing the amount of plastic tube and filler lines, Harris said.
The instrument panel is a one-piece, injection molded hard thermoplastic with no extra trim and no glove box, trimming part and tooling costs, he said. The same mold and parts can be used for both the left-hand- and right-hand-drive versions of the car.
In a conventional vehicle, seats are heavily sculpted, and they benefit from a tremendous amount of padding, Harris said.
They also have a fairly sophisticated reclining and travel system. For aesthetics, there are a large number of plastic trim parts.
The Nano's seats use minimal urethane foam padding. The car uses plastic trim only to cover metal gears that pose a safety issue because of sharp edges or spots where fingers can get caught. The headrest is part of the seat, saving the cost of an additional part.
What [Tata Motors] did was position the price because that was what the customer could afford, Harris said. Then they challenged themselves to take cost out.